Like many who enjoy retirement, Ki spent her free time walking downtown, stopping by the Heritage coffee shop, making new friends — and wagging her tail in hopes of a treat.
The 14-year-old chocolate lab — a retired search and rescue dog that in her heyday crisscrossed Southeast communities looking for lost hikers, hunters and boaters and later became a Second Street staple — died last Sunday of old age.
“She was good at brightening people’s day,” the dog’s handler, Kirk Radach, said. He added that Ki befriended anyone who bent over to scratch her ears while never straying too far from him. “That was her specialty.”
Ki lived a long “amazing” life full of adventures before she became sick about three weeks ago, Radach said. He and Ki were one of the handler-dog search teams for SEADOGS, the Juneau-based Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search, for the nine years she was in service.
Radach, 52, has been a searcher with SEADOGS for 20-plus years, and Ki was his second search dog. He trained her since she was a puppy.
Together, the two did “too many searches to count,” Radach said, all over Southeast: Gustavus, Hoonah, Angoon, Wrangell, Petersburg, Ketchikan, and of course, the capital city.
Wilderness searches were Ki’s “bread and butter,” Radach said. Later in the pup’s career, she also helped with avalanche, water and cadaver searches.
One memorable search was helping find former state Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, who had slipped on oil in his boat, hit his head and tumbled into 43-degree waters near Auke Bay one April evening in 2007.
Weyhrauch was able to swim to the shores of Coghland Island, where he stayed overnight waiting for help. Coast Guard helicopters searched for him through the night, but help didn’t reach him until Radach, another SEADOGS volunteer, and Ki found him on the beach.
Radach remembers he was thoroughly searching through the brush along the beach, while Ki was pulling him, wanting to race all the way down the beach. Sure enough, that’s where Weyhrauch was found.
“The dog always knows what’s going on,” Radach said. “She went right after him.”
The representative, who had held on for 17 hours and was battling hypothermia after being in the water for an hour before reaching shore, collapsed when they arrived, something Radach described as a common occurrence.
Despite the fact that they found the missing man, it ended up being one of the more frustrating searches because Radach was unable to communicate with other searchers that Weyhrauch had been found. Radach said he could not be heard on the radio due to the chatter of the helicopter pilots, and that he was shooting flares but no one saw them.
Finally, he got in touch with his boss on his cell phone and passed on the news that Weyhrauch was still alive, although in need of medical attention. Responders quickly transported Weyhrauch to the hospital, where he recovered fully.
Weyhrauch later told the Empire in an interview that he didn’t remember much of the rescue due to the hypothermia, but he remembered his rescuers huddled around him to keep him warm.
“I’m very grateful to the SEADOGS and the Coast Guard and my family and friends and everybody that brought over food and prayed,” Weyhrauch said at the time.
One year, Radach and Ki conducted six search and rescues in one week.
One of the searches was for a hunter who got lost chasing a deer on Admiralty Island. That search was difficult, Radach remembered, because the hunter was walking around trying to get himself oriented, which made it difficult to track him. The man stayed overnight on the island, hoping for help. Radach and Ki found him the next day sitting in the snowy, open field.
“He was so cold that his inside T-shirt was frozen,” Radach said, adding that he believes the man ended up being OK.
Bruce Bowler, the team leader of SEADOGS, described Radach and Ki as the “rock” of their team.
“The Alaska State Troopers would call at 2 a.m., the weather was cold and wet, but she and her human Kirk were the first ones to begin searching for someone who needed her,” Bowler said. “There was never any hesitation. She had that funny Lab smile that got real big when she was working. She loved the game.”
Ki was respected by other SEADOGS handlers.
“She sure was a lucky dog, going to work everyday, walking around downtown, and searching when there was one,” handlers Mike and Kerry Pilling said in an email. “We’ll miss that furry little bear.”
Ki had her share of close calls during her time as a search dog. Radach recalled when she was swept away by rapids during a search, but she resurfaced and made her way back to her handler. Another time, she fell off a boat during a search in Wrangell.
“She was not very happy about that when she came back up,” Radach said.
Even when she retired at 11 years old, Ki enjoyed working. Sometimes she and Radach would accompany the other teams as a back-up. Her last trek out with Radach was when a man from New York got lost walking the Brotherhood Bridge Trail about three or four years ago. (The man eventually made his way to the rifle range, where troopers picked him up.)
One thing about Ki that constantly amazed Radach was that she always had a way of comforting people. When she’d find someone, she would warm them with her furry body and let them hold her. Even in retirement, she’d do the same thing, Radach said.
“I’d be walking up the street, see someone up ahead of us looking upset or sad, and she would just run up all happy and tail wagging and a big smile,” he said. “I can’t count the number of times she did that to people — she’d take them out of their funk. She had a way of comforting people, sitting with them and letting them hold her. She did that more than a few times.”
Radach said he is looking for a new puppy to train.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.