Saving lives in the bush

A walk in the park is risky business, at least in the Yukon. "That's the thing about going out into the wilderness. "That's the thing about going out into the wilderness. And that's a little bit of what gives you that high - the danger involved."

A walk in the park is risky business, at least in the Yukon.

“That’s the thing about going out into the wilderness. And that’s a little bit of what gives you that high – the danger involved,” said Cam Beemer, president of the Whitehorse District Search and Rescue Society.

Every year residents and tourists alike get lost and sometimes die in the face of the Yukon’s wildlife and elements.

Beemer gets about 15 to 20 calls a year from the RCMP when the police need help on a rescue, he said.

His job is to then assemble a team of volunteers with the appropriate resources to find the missing person or people and get them to safety. Or, in the worst cases, recover the body.

There are roughly 45 members of the Whitehorse Search and Rescue team, said Beemer.

All of them, including Beemer, volunteer their time and pay for their own personal equipment.

About 15 team members gathered in the Mount McIntyre parking lot Sunday to brush up on their skills.

In the morning they practised using their mule litter wheel, a piece of equipment that allows victims to be carried on a stretcher across rough terrain and up or down gentle slopes.

It’s essentially a large basket, made to hold a stretcher and mounted on a single large tire. Some team members hold on to the equipment while others gently guide it up or down from above using ropes.

In the afternoon, teams performed mock searches in the cross-country ski trails, using limited information to track and recover the victims.

Rescuers wore bright reflective vests and worked in teams to comb the trails and woods. Some yelled, “Bryanski!”- the name of a mock victim – as they went.

Team leaders received directions over handheld radios from the search manager back at the mobile command post in the parking lot. A GPS unit in each radio allowed the search manager to track each team member’s movement on a laptop in real time.

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After two hours, three teams had been deployed in a relatively small area of trails, and “Bryanski” remained missing. Some wondered if they had been sent on a wild goose chase.

When everyone regrouped at the command post at the end of the training day, a mock victim emerged and confirmed that he had been in the area the whole time, and he had not heard any calls for him.

It goes to show how difficult it can be to find someone, even in a known and limited area, especially if they are moving around, one of the leaders remarked.

The Whitehorse Search and Rescue team is trained and equipped for rescues on water and on the ground.

“We try to be very good at what we do, instead of just mediocre at a lot of things,” said Beemer.

They do not have the training or equipment to extract people off steep mountain slopes.

That was the situation they faced on a recent rescue of an exploration worker who fell down the side of a mountain near Marsh Lake.

Search and rescue personnel had hoped that they could use their mule litter wheel to bring the young woman to the helicopter, but as soon as they arrived on the scene they knew that it would be impossible, said Beemer.

Fortunately, the Whitehorse Fire Department has a team with the proper equipment and training for steep-angle rope rescues. They were deployed and the woman was brought to safety.

Beemer would like to see more investment in equipment and training for search and rescue, but he said that high-angle capability is not anywhere near the top of the priority list for his organization.

He can’t remember another incident in the Whitehorse area in the last 10 years where those kinds of resources were required, he said.

John Mitchell, president of Klondike Search and Rescue in Dawson, doesn’t feel so confident.

“It’s like Nostradamus. I’ve been saying that this is going to happen for years, and it has,” said Mitchell.

“To give credit: The Whitehorse area is different from the outlying communities in that they have a pretty professional technical rope team involved with the fire department. In the other areas of the Yukon that is not the case.”

A very similar rescue situation in Tombstone Territorial Park last year did not go as well, he said.

A paramedic, a nurse and a chopper pilot were sent to extract a woman who fell down a mountain slope.

“They went in with the longest piece of rope being their shoelaces,” said Mitchell.

The terrain was unstable, and rescuers kept sliding down the slope as they cared for the victim and moved her to safety.

“It scared the shit-hell out of them,” said Mitchell.

There are lots of resources that potentially could be deployed in these sorts of situations, he said. The key is for every community to do a thorough risk assessment and inventory of resources, and improve communication so that the appropriate people and equipment are dispatched, said Mitchell.

The alternative to a rope rescue on steep mountainsides is using a helicopter and sling to remove the victim directly from the slope.

That sort of rescue involves highly specialized equipment, as well as certification for both the pilot and the rescuer on the ground, said Cathrine Morginn with the Department of Community Services.

The confluence of those three necessary factors does not currently exist in the Yukon, she said.

Parks Canada’s Haines Junction office used to have that capability, but recently announced that it will no longer dispatch technical rescue teams, due to funding cuts.

Doug Makkonen is a helicopter pilot who has performed rescues for Parks Canada for about 30 years.

“We’ve never had a problem, all of the years that I’ve been here for 30 years in the Junction, we’ve never had a mishap, the systems work well and we’ve helped a lot of people,” said Makkonen. “So it’s kind of ridiculous that Parks can come along and say that they’re out of the rescue business here.”

He has heard that they are considering using personnel out of Banff, Alta., for technical rescues in Kluane National Park, he said.

But in the event of an emergency, that won’t cut it, said Makkonen. And that puts him in a tough spot.

“If somebody asks for help, I’m going to go whether I have people with me or not. It sort of becomes a difficult situation for me, because I can’t do it alone, I require assistance of these specialized people that understand the hazards involved.”

The Park Canada decision to stop technical rescues out of Haines Junction is still under negotiation, said Makkonen.

This time of year no one is climbing in the ice fields, so the risk of a situation requiring a technical rescue is low for now, he said.

The government’s last line of defence in the event of an emergency is to call in the army.

UBC professor Michael Byers recently warned in a Globe and Mail column that the Canadian government has opened itself to the possibility of international embarrassment by not having extensive search and rescue capability stationed in the North.

With increasing marine traffic through the treacherous Northwest Passage, including luxury tourism, an accident is all but inevitable, he said.

The Canadian Forces would deploy helicopters from Comox, B.C., and Greenwood, N.S., in the event of a disaster, but it would take them over a day to get there, wrote Byers.

In the North, there has to be some personal responsibility for risk planning, said Beemer.

“There is an inherent risk in going out there,” he added.

“Ten, 15 years ago you didn’t have the capability, necessarily, to call in 911. You had to look after yourself, have your own evacuation plan and walk out.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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