'That one time that always gets you into trouble'
Search and Rescue is a very different game out in bush Alaska. The land is vast, the climate is severe, and resources are limited. Even in "normal" situations, life is very rough out there.
In an area the size of Indiana, home to just 25,000 people spread out in 50 villages, where temperatures this winter were minus 50 with wind chill, these volunteers mobilize fast. Often, they are the only ground searchers. Alaska State Troopers, the Alaska National Guard and Bethel police all say they are essential.
Many of the local volunteers have found themselves in trouble over the years. They shared some stories.
Norman Japhet, a volunteer with Bethel Search and Rescue for 20 years, found himself in trouble on a moose hunting trip in winter 2010, before the region had extensive cellphone coverage.
He had left Bethel with a group on snowmachine then noticed that his wooden sled — with most of his food, warm clothing and spare fuel — had broken off from the tow bar. He figured it couldn't be far, so he backtracked to get it. But he couldn't find the sled. He was using up his gas. Then his snowmachine flipped on rough terrain. He was trapped. Finally, he worked himself loose. But he did not have enough fuel to get to his destination, Pilot Station.
For three days, he was alone. He could hear the faint sounds of an airplane and snowmachines that he figured were looking for him. He fired off three signaling rounds. He made a small fire. But they didn't spot him.
Usually, he carried a couple of gallons of fuel on his snowmachine. Not this time. "It's that one time that always gets you into trouble," Japhet said.
He decided to move closer toward Pilot Station. In frustration, he hollered to God. "I turned around and there it was, the biggest, driest tree I ever seen," he said. He used a bit of plastic and his gloves as fire starters, and the tree lit up. Then a plane in the distance turned around. It was trooper pilot Earl Samuelson, who buzzed the stranded hunter.
Searchers came from all around by snowmachine with water for him and gas for his sno-go, which he drove to Pilot Station. Then he was flown for medical treatment. He suffered severe frostbite and later lost part of a foot. He gets around, but "it hurts always."