Winter search and rescue often a matter of life and death

Posted: Thursday, October 19, 2000

KENAI (AP) -- 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.

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.''

While spending time on shore, other activities caught the retired Coast Guardsman'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.

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. During the days that followed, 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 never had 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 Alaska State 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 waist 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.''

Burke urged that snowmachiners who want to get involved in search and rescue efforts join clubs of like-minded people, become well trained, operate safely, use good common sense and protect themselves with helmets, boots and other gear.

That includes carrying an avalanche beacon, a probe and a shovel -- tools that 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 at 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 for snowmobilers:

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

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

--Make sure the machine is capable of the journey.

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

--Have a map of the area and a compass.

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

--Dress for the weather.

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