Winter search and rescue becomes matter of life, death

Posted: Sunday, October 15, 2000

When Ron Poston of Homer described the events of last Feb. 4, he said, "It was just timing. Timing was everything. I just think it was meant to be."

And listening to him tell of finding Fairbanks musher Rod Boyce, who became lost while racing in last winter's Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, it sounded believable.

Exactly when the path started that led Poston to the right place at the right time is uncertain. But leaving an important mark on the time line is a search and rescue career of more than 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Leading up to it


Moments after seeing Tustumena 200 musher Rod Boyce safely delivered to Caribou Lake Lodge, Ron Poston takes a quiet moment to reflect on the search and successful rescue.

Photos by McKibben Jackinsky

While stationed in California's San Joaquin Valley, with more than 1,500 miles of waterway, Poston averaged 300 search and rescues a year.

"I've found a lot of guys lost in the river," he said. "Sometimes we would do two or three rescues a day. Not big rescues. Just routine."

His "routine" also involved bigger ships and the challenges of open water.

"We got a call one night to pick up a crew off a fishing boat," said Poston, recalling a cry for help from the crew of a 135-foot fish processor.

"They called the Coast Guard and said their boat was breaking up so they got on a fishing boat that picked them up. We went out the next day, got the crew and found their (abandoned) boat still floating."

Poston was in charge of engineering when the Coast Guard boarded the vessel. He noticed the processor's lights were on and the engine was still running.

"I went aboard and everything seemed fairly sound. The engine was totally intact. There was no flooding. Nothing was wrong with the boat," he said.

The crew explained what happened.

"They spooked themselves telling stories to the point they got off a perfectly good boat and got in a life boat," he said. "Search and rescue can be funny and it can be heartbreaking. I've seen it all."

What the retired mariner saw rivals chilling movie scenes reproduced with special effects.


With so many snowmachine and sled dog trails criss-crossing the Caribu Hills, signs provided by members of the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers snowmachine club offer valuable information.

Photos by McKibben Jackinsky

"After some time passes, you forget the 100-foot seas, the howling winds and just remember the good things," he said, recalling such an instance.

"One time we left Adak heading for an aircraft that went down toward Korea. We came around the (Aleutian) chain and were running pretty fast. And then we hit 60-foot seas and 100-knot winds. We were still going, but we were almost standing still."

When his ship finally reached the scene, Russians already had picked up the flight crew, leaving pieces of the wreckage for the U.S. to retrieve.

Another step leading to the events of Feb. 4 was Poston's decision to move to Alaska, and finally to Homer in 1982. The last 11 years of his career were spent sailing out of Alaska ports.

"The blue keeps calling you back," said Poston, of his experience in waters around St. Paul, Adak, Dillingham, Anchorage, Homer, Juneau and Ketchikan.

While spending time on shore, other activities caught the Homer resident's attention.

"If you don't participate in winter sports here, you don't do anything," Poston said. "It's a must."

At age 50, he started skiing. When he started snowmachining three years ago and joined Snomads, a club of Homer snowmachine enthusiasts, Poston took another fortuitous step on the path leading to Rod Boyce.

Crossing paths

When Boyce decided to race in the Tustumena 200, he took a step toward Poston.

Boyce cleared the Caribou Lake checkpoint shortly after midnight on Sunday, Jan. 30. Then he disappeared.

A search involving the Alaska State Troopers, Central Emergency Services, peninsula snowmachine clubs, Tustumena 200 race officials and mushers began a short time later. Eager to find the musher before fierce winter conditions took their toll, area businesses and individuals also joined the effort, volunteering fuel, food and precious time.

Following the wrong set of tracks, Boyce got off the course, eventually finding himself on a ridge. In the following days, he waved at planes flying overhead and wrote, "HELP" in the snow with sticks. He heard snowmachines, but the sound of their engines echoed off surrounding hills and he couldn't be sure of their location. He and his dogs survived on a water diet. He contended with the cold and wind. With Friday's dawn came clear skies and Boyce got his first glimpse of a snowmachine in the distance. He started walking in that direction.

Meanwhile, Poston was keeping an eye on the search.

"Monday night I was asked if I wanted to search for him," he said. "But I got stuck in my yard and just a whole bunch of things stopped me from getting out."

Poston even drove to where search crews were putting in but decided the weather made it too risky.

"It was a complete white out; blowing, snowing. I wasn't going out by myself so I turned around and went back home," he said.

It was the right thing to do.

"Friends called me that night and said I had made a real wise decision," Poston said. "Nine guys went out together and spent the day getting unstuck. They just kept burying their machines."

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday passed.

"Friday, I just decided to go out by myself," said Poston of the final step that brought his and Boyce's path together. "So I did. And there he was."

Poston had never experienced anything like that moment.

"He looked at me. I looked at him. And he said, 'Where do I know you from?' He looked familiar to me, too. But we'd never seen each other before," Poston said.

First Sgt. Paul Burke, statewide coordinator of searches and rescues for the troopers, has had similar experiences.

"The one I remember most happened when someone flew over a tent buried in snow out of Sutton. They saw an arm waving out of the tent, but there was nowhere to land. It snowed bad overnight and they called (the troopers) to help," Burke said. "We took the helicopter up there. The snow was so deep I was 'post-holing' up to my waste in it. And I opened the tent and there was a guy I'd gone to high school with (in Tucson, Ariz.).

"He said, 'What the heck are you doing here?' and I said, 'I'm here to rescue you.'

"I honestly think there's a spiritual connection," said Burke, describing the relationship between a rescuer and the person being rescued. "Sometimes it's a logical progression of events that brings them together, but sometimes it's a miracle."

Playing it safe

Burke said snowmachine clubs like the Snomads and Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers on the Kenai Peninsula are the backbone of search and rescue efforts.

"Generally speaking, they're organized, take care of their gear and are familiar with search and rescue operations. We would use those guys more than we would use individual snowmachiners because they're trained," he said. "All we ask is that they operate safely, use good common sense and protect themselves with helmets, boots, things like that.

"All those guys who do search and rescue work, God bless them," Burke said. "Most of them are like you and me and would rather sit and watch television, but they get the call and they go."

Then there is the flip side of snowmachining, when the operator of a snowmachine is the object of the search. With winter just around the corner, Poston's and Burke's experiences are a chilling reminder of the need for caution.

"The majority of the folks recovered last year were using snowmachines," Burke said.

Unfortunately, not all of them had happy endings.

"One man was trapped up to his waist and we got him out. He was extremely lucky. But, of course, he chose to disregard the warning, went right back up (the mountain) and was killed," Burke said. "It was not a freak accident. He fully knew the slopes were unsafe and he chose to go anyway."

Burke urged carrying an avalanche beacon, a probe and a shovel, tools that also can be used to help others.

"With a probe you can look below the snow and a shovel will help you dig someone out," Burke said. "If you've ever dug 14 feet of snow with your hands, you'll understand why people should have a shovel."

Sgt. Charlie Tressler with the troopers in Soldotna has seen his share of accidents, including everything from a snowmachine breaking down to fatalities.

"We're probably seeing a little higher number of accidents because of machines that go faster. And we have people operating snowmachines that have very little knowledge of how to operate a vehicle. In other words, young teen-agers who don't have a driver's license are on a machine that can go 70- to 80- miles an hour."

Tressler offered the following safety tips:

n Be aware of the condition of the machine. The law requires machines be registered and have headlights and brake lights that work.

n Be aware of where you're traveling to and how long the trip will take.

n Make sure the machine is capable of the journey.

n File a trip plan so someone knows where you are.

n Have a map of the area and a compass.

n Carry some safety items, including matches, flares, some kind of signaling device and a couple of candy bars for spare food.

n Dress for the weather.

Finding solutions

"High-marking," driving up a steep incline, is the cause of many accidents and Tressler said it isn't just mountain slopes that are to blame.

"We're seeing a lot of it alongside roads and it can be pretty dangerous for the rider and traffic," the sergeant said.

A death occurred in the Nikiski area last winter, according to Tressler, when a snowmachine stalled at the apex of the curve on a 15-foot bank. The machine rolled, crushing the operator.

"(Operators) also should be aware of reckless or negligent driving, even if they are not on a highway," he said. "The law says 'anywhere.'"

Sgt. Jim Hibpshman, with the troopers in Homer, places a high value on the involvement of snowmachiners in search and rescue efforts.

"We lean very heavily on volunteer groups such as the Snomads," he said. "They make our search and rescue one hundred times easier. They know the area and they have the equipment. Without them, it would be very difficult.

"We don't have the manpower to go out and do searches," said Hibpshman of his four-person staff. "But the volunteer groups do an outstanding job for the whole community."

Hibpshman will meet with his staff this week to prepare for the coming winter season.

"Search and rescue is not as simple as people think," he said. "Sometimes there are many resources needed and sometimes they overlap. We look for ways to do it better and have it go smoother."

With helicopters running for $800 to $1,200 an hour, cost also is a consideration, But Hibpshman said it comes second.

"Never has anyone in my department questioned a dollar amount as long as we're using a reasonable resource," he said. "On the other hand, we need to realize this is public money. If we can get people to do things to not get hurt and not get lost, we don't have to use that resource and the public is ahead."

The Snomads' sharp safety focus is helping achieve that goal.

"We have trail rides throughout the year to help people get exposed to the area and know what they're doing and where they're going," said Spud Dillon, Snomad president.

"Club member Mike Eastham organizes safety meetings for kids. We sell helmets for half price to kids who attend with their parents," he said. "We do anything we can with safety for the kids."

Beginning this year, the club will groom trails from McNeil School on Homer's East End Road, north to Ninilchik, connecting two trails groomed by the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers. Not only does grooming make smooth trails, the groomer carries a stretcher and can be operated in any weather, making it an important piece of search and rescue equipment, said Dillon.

Also standing at the ready are four bags of radio survey equipment in case the troopers call for the club's assistance.

The Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers also carry the safety message. Through involvement in a "safe kids" program, they purchased helmets that were sold for $20 to kids participating in the event.

"We also put signs up on the trails," said club treasurer Howard Davis. "We paid for and maintain them, plus we maintain about 200 miles of trails."

The club recently was awarded a state of Alaska grant of $15,000 for the purchase of a new groomer and has applied for a $30,000 Alaska Department of Natural Resources grant to help pay maintenance and trail grooming expenses.

Taking another approach to winter safety are Lee and Jill Pedersen of Homer and Terry and Margie Smith of Ninilchik. Both couples, who are active in snowmachine clubs in their areas and were involved in the search for Boyce, offer guided snowmachine tours of the Caribou Hills, but no one gets on a machine without an orientation.

Their clients, whether experienced or inexperienced snowmachine riders, are familiarized with the machines they will be riding. Helmets and proper clothing are a must, some of which the Pedersens and the Smiths provide.

"We tell our clients it is not a race," Jill Pedersen said. "It's a scenic tour."

The Smiths also require their guests to watch a safety video before beginning the tour.

Happy endings

The day after Boyce was found, Poston and other snowmachiners did a follow-up of the search. They toured the area where Boyce was lost, eager to understand how it happened.

"It's a miracle he even made it to that point without getting into serious trouble," Poston said. "There are a lot of swamps and rough country. We ran across open water, but I don't think there was much of anything open the night he got lost. But the area he came through, there were sinkholes. It's amazing he missed them in the dark."

A lot of variables determine the outcome of a search and rescue effort. From his experience, Poston knows one thing never changes.

"In a search area, you're always positive," he said. "Especially around the family and other searchers. You have to keep positive."

Positive though he was, the outcome still surprised him.

"It was pretty awesome for me," Poston said. "My wife said it took about two days for me to get down out of the clouds. I just stayed in that high state for a long time. It was just really, really awesome. I just played a small part, but it was just really great.

"I've done a lot of search and rescues in the Coast Guard, but nothing like this ever happened to me before," he said. "It was just meant to me."

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