“Is that the dog, or is that another goat?”
We were several hours and a couple miles into a recent callout with Juneau Mountain Rescue.
“Pass the glasses over here, let me take a look.”
Unable to make a definitive call, we continued on, knowing that our contacts, the dog’s owners, were somewhere up ahead on the West Glacier trail.
A vacationing couple from Whitehorse had lost their dog, Kiska, Saturday afternoon. Their search that day evolved into a long Sunday on the trail and a disappointing night at camp. They resumed their searching Monday morning and finally heard Kiska’s cries coming from a small ledge below the West Glacier Trail — maybe 300 yards north and 50 yards below where they had last seen her. While her owners were able to get close, exposed sections of vertical rock prevented them from safely reaching her. That’s when JMR got the request for assistance.
Dogs can run into the same situations as some hikers do — going off trail, experiencing a lapse in situational awareness and finding themselves turned around, or cliffed-out, or injured. Kiska didn’t have a cell phone with GPS, but she did have people who cared about here, searched for her and knew when additional help may be needed to safely get her back.
Canine rescues do not typically fall under JMR’s operational purview, but they can offer us a solid opportunity for real-time training. Our team of four had grabbed our personal gear, been to the JMR gear cache for the 50 or so pounds of technical gear that we would divide up into our remaining pack space, and proceeded to head up the trail. Given the size of our packs, I’m sure some of the tourists at the trailhead thought we’d be out for days.
We found one owner on the trail 30 minutes after packing up those binoculars that had left us with as many questions as answers. She directed us off the trail and into the brush.
Dropping through the alders we worked our way across the slope to the other owner who was calming Kiska. We were able to see the dog trapped on a small ledge 50 yards away. We were now above the dog, but across the slope. Somehow, we needed to set up our gear more directly above Kiska. One of our team traversed on belay to a small spot above the dog that provided a couple acceptable anchoring points. After fixing the traverse line the rest of us moved across, and began rigging our rope systems. The rock throughout the area was weak and broken and we had to move carefully to avoid sending pieces down toward the dog. By this point we had our team leader and our system operators, but who was going over the edge after Kiska? One of our team had wisely done some online research on creating a canine rescue harness before he got to the trailhead. A qualified attendant already, he was now uniquely suited to the task.
Unlike most human hikers, we couldn’t explain our plans to Kiska and we were concerned about how she would react to a stranger coming down beside her. Her ledge was small and we needed to keep her calm. Combining a slow lower with the attendant’s calming words seemed to do the trick. Soon, she was being fitted into a harness while scarfing down dog treats as the rest of the team rigged the system for the raise.
Completing the raise from the cramped ledge we had anchored at was a slow process, but there were no complaints from Kiska who seemed quite relaxed as she rose up the slope. Once we had her back up to the anchor location, we transferred her and her attendant to the traverse line to work their way back to Kiska’s relieved owner. Thankfully, a quick examination had revealed a healthy, if thirsty, dog.
After breaking down our gear, the six of us with Kiska (now on leash) headed up through the alders and back down the trail in the evening twilight.
What can you learn from a dog? Once she was off that ledge she wanted some water, a snack and her people. After that, no worries. It was just another wonderful evening walk filled with new scents and sounds and places to go. She was in the moment and the moment was just fine.
• JMR is a volunteer, nonprofit, educational corporation dedicated to providing technical search and rescue, outdoor rescue, and safety training for the Southeast Alaska regional area, as well as nationally and globally as needed. For more information about Juneau Mountain Rescue, go online to http://www.juneaumountainrescue.org or on Facebook at facebook.com/JuneauMountainRescue.