Avalanche Dog to the Rescue

Milo trained to uncover victims in high-risk Juneau

Posted: Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Milo barked and jumped. The border collie was frantic about something.

He started pawing into the snow, and the problem soon became obvious. It didn't take him long to uncover a buried 12-year-old girl.

Out popped Lenka Craigova, who had spent the past half hour three feet below the surface. She had a book in one hand and an iPod in the other; good winter clothes and a sleeping pad had kept her dry.

"It's actually not as dramatic as you would think it would be," Craigova said. "You have plenty of light, and you have just enough space."

Maybe it wasn't dramatic for Craigova, but then again she's been through the demonstration many times with her father,

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search and rescue expert Jim Craig, and Milo, the first nationally certified "avalanche dog" in Alaska.

Sometimes she snuggles down under six feet of snow, but there wasn't that much to work with Tuesday near the Mendenhall Glacier Ranger Station.

Be prepared

Backcountry avalanche emergency gear includes:

• Water.

• Avalanche beacon.

• GPS unit.

• Whistle.

• Cell phone.

• Proper clothing: hat; gloves; warm, waterproof clothes.

Craig said It can take as long as 15 minutes to uncover someone trapped six feet down, and a properly trained rescue dog can dig 30 times quicker than a human can.

Before unleashing Milo to find Lenka, Craig lectured a group of 13 students, all second- though fourth-graders, on wilderness safety.

"Awareness is what we are talking about today," said Craig, 45.

"We don't expect any of the kids to walk away with a whole lot of usable knowledge as far as rescue is concerned," he said. "We do expect them to be aware that these things can happen and encourage them as they go through their lives to learn self-rescue or buddy rescue techniques."

It's a good point. There's only one of Milo, but there are plenty of avalanches.

"Juneau has been surveyed and recognized as the most likely place for an urban avalanche disaster in North America," Craig said. "Really, it would not be unheard of for us to have to do an avalanche search in and around vehicles or houses or dirty old snow piles in parking lots."

Craig emphasized that people should be prepared when venturing into the outdoors and take equipment that could save lives.

"The harsh reality of it is that unless by some stroke of luck Milo and I are in the area, like right there when they get caught, they are really going to have to depend on each other to rescue themselves," Craig said.

"That's why there are very few live rescues done by avalanche dogs, because they are generally not in a position to respond," he added.

Thirty percent of people caught in an avalanche are seriously injured, and there's always danger of suffocation, Craig said.

Craig is certified through the National Association for Search and Rescue, a prerequisite for the special type of training that earned the certification for Milo. He's also an expert in outdoor emergency care and a ski patroller.

The demonstration was organized for the Junior Snow Ranger Program with the aid of Karen Maher, educational specialist for the Juneau Ranger District.

A second program was scheduled today for fifth- through seventh-graders.

"This is the first year we have ever tried to do something like this here in Juneau," she said.

If audience reviews are any indication, it won't be the last.

"I really liked all the gadgets the guy had for finding the people in the snow," said 7-year-old Finn Sinclair, one of the children signed up for the Wonders of Winter demonstration.

Sinclair was especially impressed by the avalanche beacon and gave a pretty good imitation of the signal it sends to a receiver.

"If this goes well, we are going to try to do this again to have more similar type programs for kids during the school breaks," Maher said.

• More photos available in the spotted section of the Juneau Empire online.

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