Searching Big Water

by Chris Dover

On Thursday, August 21, 1997, a 16-year-old boy disappeared, and presumably drowned, while floating with friends on the Yellowstone River near Billings, Montana. A common practice by kids on hot summer days, made riskier by the snags and debris left in the river after a record spring flood. None of the teenagers wore personal flotation devices. When the group neared a side channel, the majority floated to the left out of the main current. The victim tried, too late, to join his friends and was last seen being swept into a log jam at the head of an island. The accident happened at about 1730, and friends and observers who were standing on an old bridge 100 yards downstream quickly combed the area but could not find the boy. They contacted Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office and Minute Man Search and Rescue, who searched the river with jet boats until dark.

Friday, August 22, the sheriff's department contacted search dogs. Roxanne Dunn and her Newfoundland, Ash, were first to arrive on scene. Taken to the PLS, they worked close to the water. This boat was operated by Deputy Bill Cummins and a crew from the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Department. As they worked up stream into a log jam, Ash gave a very strong alert, and had to be held in the boat.

The second team, Chris Dover and her German Shepherd Targhee, were picked up downstream from the accident site by a local jet boat salesman who had offered to help with the search. The jet powered boat was ideal to work from, having an open bow where the handler and dog could work close to the water. The boat worked upstream along the edge of the river. Chris held Targhee's breakaway harness as he dipped his head to the water and leaned over the side of the boat, nosing the water. Targhee alerted about 25 yards downstream for the head of the log jam. The jam where both dogs alerted was suspended over 15 feet of water with a very strong current.

The boat Chris and Targhee were working from had to leave, as the salesman had a boat to show to a customer. He dropped of the dog team on a gravel bar in the middle of the river. A Minute Man SAR boat picked them up. This boat had a solid bow. The dog worked form a carpeted deck 3 feet above the water

With both dogs alerting to the log jam, it was likely the victim had been swept only a short distance in the jam. They probed the jam, but no equipment was available to tear it apart, and it was too dangerous for divers. Even though this was a likely spot for the body, downstream. They checked snags and log jams as far as possible before reaching the Huntley diversion dam.

The search had begun late in the morning with temperatures in the high 70s and a slight downstream wind out of the west. As the day progressed, the air temperature rose into the 90s, Mark Polakoff and Eiger Cross the log suspended over the river channel.and the wind dropped off. Even on the river, the dogs were warm. The teams took on a long break to allow the dogs to swim and cool off.

A third team dog team arrived, Mark Polakoff from Absaroka Search Dogs, and his dog Eiger. They also searched the high probability log jam. Because no boat was available, they searched from the shore. Before the handler could give the search command, the dog alerted, sniffing to the river's edge.

Meanwhile, a family floating the river in a raft got into the same log jam that the rescue teams were searching and was in immediate danger of drowning. Lee Dunn rescues a man stranded on the log jam.Lee Dunn, a member of Stillwater County SAR and a search dog handler, went out onto the log jam. Trained in swift water rescue, Lee grabbed the man to keep him above water. While Lee clasped the man with on hand, he yanked a cell phone out of his pocket with the other, dialed a deputy in one of the rescue boats, and asked for help. Both sheriff's boats motored to the scene at full speed. The log jam was moving. Lee had to get the man out of the water or risk both of their lives. In a tremendous display of strength and balance, Lee pulled the man out of the water and got him to shore. The family was shocked, and very lucky, to have rescuers at the scent of their accident.

Chris Dover and Targhee cross the log suspended over a channel of the Yellowstone RiverThe teams had searched downstream to the dam with no canine interest except at the PLS. But they needed heavy equipment to tear the pile apart, a logistical nightmare on the big river channel. The dog teams reconfirmed by climbing across a downed cottonwood tree that was creating a deadly strainer in the he river channel. A large limb at 60 degree angle forced the teams to climb up and then jump down about four feet, suspended above the strainer. Agility and control training paid off. On the other side both dogs alerted into the log jam.

Then the teams faced the hard fact of many water searches: no body. The water was too swift and dangerous to enter at the log jam. The rest of the week, the sheriff's department patrolled the river.

The following week, search dogs returned to the area. Again, both dogs had strong alerts, one almost entering the water at a hole in the jam.

The next day the sheriff's department planned to tear the jam apart with chainsaws. This was never done, because a few hours later they spotted the body floating a few miles downstream from the log jam. The search activity on top the log jam had evidently dislodge the body.