Rescue group given a new set of wheels

Juneau team to use 6x6 utility vehicle in search efforts

Posted: Monday, October 29, 2007

On the morning of Oct. 5, as search teams looked for overdue hiker John Wilcox near the Lemon Creek Trail, Juneau Mountain Rescue prepared its new Polaris Ranger 6x6 utility vehicle for its inaugural search-voyage.

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"We were going to use it to go up to Lemon Creek and run up that trail there," said Doug Wessen, a mountain rescue volunteer.

Just as a crew was putting the Ranger on its trailer, Wilcox walked out of the woods and met rescuers.

So the Ranger waits. And hopefully it will continue to do so. But the reality is, with the weather deteriorating and the available light decreasing, the 25-year-old nonprofit, volunteer mountain rescue group could be called out anytime.

The six-wheel, all-wheel-drive vehicle - with a flatbed in the back and a top speed of 41 mph - can transport a driver and two first-responders.

Juneau Mountain Rescue was one of 67 groups to receive a free, $11,000 Ranger in 2006, as part of the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co.'s corporate-giving plan.

The corporation donated 330 Rangers to first-responder teams in 50 states, since founding the plan in 2003. It plans to give away 65 to 75 more in 2008.

The application process is free, online (www.ustinc.com) and open to volunteer and career firefighting agencies; municipal, country and state emergency medical services; police departments; search and rescue teams; wildlife conservation groups; and park and forest ranger enforcement.

"We're not endorsing the use of (smokeless tobacco) at all," mountain rescue volunteer Steve Handy said. "They're giving us this because of what we do and the value that it provides to us. That's how we're looking at it."

The Ranger has a short wheel base and can tip over if the driver takes turns too quickly. But it will extend mountain rescue's access and allow volunteers to quickly ferry gear or first-responders.

"It has a lot more capabilities than a normal four-wheeler," Wessen said. "Four-wheelers help, but you can't carry a victim out. This would allow us to do that."

"Haste is a critical thing when you have hypothermia, bleeding, injuries, exposure," Handy said. "This will allow us to get up that much quicker, a lot faster. Speed is a big benefit."

The Ranger is mountain rescue's only form of mechanized access.

"It greatly extends our range for searches," Handy said. "It definitely adds to our arsenal."

Once the group acquired the Ranger, mountain rescue needed a trailer to transport it. It would have cost close to $2,000 to buy one out of Anchorage and ferry it down to Juneau. Instead, the group bought one from Home Depot six weeks ago.

In the future, they may buy tracks to drive the Ranger through heavy snow.

A few weeks ago, mountain rescue assisted a man who had slipped on the steps at the Windfall Lake cabin and broken his ankle. In that situation, the Ranger only would've reached a half-mile up the trail.

"The bridges are too narrow, and it's too rooted and there are boardwalks. It's somewhat limited there," Wessen said.

"It's not like a tank, where it can run right through brush," he added. "It's got its limitations. It's going to need some sort of trail. But it can get us up that first mile or two, or get some gear up."



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