PUBLISHED: 4:36 PM on Wednesday, May 2, 2007
Local volunteers, canines make a difference in search, rescue
Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search

Courtesy photo
  A member of SEADOGS trains with his dog to prepare the animal for search and rescue.
Being lost in the unforgiving Alaska wilderness is an experience no one wants to face. Risks of hypothermia, injuries and even death are realistic possibilities. Across Alaska people who are willing to risk their lives along with the aid of search dogs make serious situations hopeful.

In Juneau the Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search - better known as SEADOGS - are responsible to the Alaska State Troopers and have worked alongside the U.S. Coast Guard and Juneau Mountain Rescue.

Currently the team is comprised of public relations manager and coordinator Bruce Bowler and seven other members.

The volunteer-based SEADOGS is a non-profit search and rescue organization dedicated to training and handling search dogs in Southeast Alaska. On 24-hour call certified handlers are available within 40 minutes or less of search notification.

In 1977 when 11-year-old Rusty Dursma fell from the top of Mount Juneau onto the face of the mountain, Bowler remembered thinking if only they had a search dog at the time. "They put everything they had into it," he said.

The tragic loss of the child began the process toward SEADOGS origin.

It is the seed of what the group is today, Bowler said.

During that time, Bowler ran into Ellen Searby, a seasoned search and rescue dog trainer, who also heard of Dursma's accident.

"Between Ellen and I and several others we got SEADOGS up and running," he said.

Courtesy photo
  Kirk Radach and his former search and rescue dog Minnie.
While Searby is no longer on the team, SEADOGS is 30 years established and still going strong.

Concerning the furry hard-working heroes, Bowler said they look for dogs that are intelligent, obedient, have good work ethic and physical abilities such as size and endurance necessary to deal with what Alaska throws at them. Training takes one to two years.

"Dogs proven to be most successful are working dog breeds," he said.

SEADOGS training techniques are so effective they have worked with national search and rescue groups and have helped establish standards for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Bowler said he was actively involved in setting presidential standards.

"From my professional dealings, they do an amazing job," said petty officer Joe Baxter of the U.S. Coast Guard in Juneau.

"The people are extremely dedicated and the dogs work exactly like I was told they would do-(they) put themselves on the line to help."

Baxter, who has done volunteer training with the SEADOGS for his work, has also been in a personal situation where they came to his group's rescue.

In October 2006, Baxter remembers," I took three people out the Admiralty Island; the goal was to climb a mountain that was about 3700 ft., shoot a deer or two and climb back down."

He said on the way back down, with four hours of daylight life, they decided to split up into two groups, with experienced persons on each group.

"Once we separated at the top we never saw each again-for another day and a half; it was miserable weather, slippery and wet," he said.

Baxter's group made it to the bottom, but the other group was still lost.

Summing it up, the SEADOGS were contacted through the Coast Guard, and came to the rescue.

"The SEADOGS found us at four in the morning, we huddled around a fire and waited until daylight," Baxter said.

At about 8 a.m. the other group was located and evacuated by an Air Station Sitka helicopter.

Learning from the situation, Baxter said "it was a good training opportunity to experience under semi-controlled circumstances."

Recently, the SEADOGS assisted in the rescue of Juneau's former Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, 54, who fell out his boat Sunday, April 22, into the 43-degree waters of Auke Bay and survived a chilly night on Coghlan Island.

Weyhrauch was discovered 17 hours later hypothermic but alive by SEADOGS volunteers Kirk Radach, Stacey Poulson and rescue dog Ki.

"You don't really feel anything when you make the rescue, you're too busy," Radach said. "Time does mean much, people are talking but you're just trying to take care of the person."

When reporting back to families, Radach said, "It's fun to talk to people when they are happy and excited than when you talk to people in grief-not everyone makes it."

Bowler, who was with Weyhrauch's family when the discovery call came in said, "I froze when Kirk called through on the radio-electricity went through the room from the jubilation and the relief. I'm sure the walls expanded with the 'yahoos' that came out of his family."

"To be in the right place at the right time-Kirk has been at this 17 years to handle the situation he was in," Bowler said.

Weyrauch was treated in the Emergency Department of Bartlett Regional Hospital for Hypothermia. He was discharged Tuesday and continued his care at home.

Michelle Casey, community relations director for Bartlett Regional Hospital, was asked by the Weyrauch family to convey to the community their gratitude and appreciation for all of the people who assisted in the search and rescue process and the continuing support and assistance.

"It's those people that have taken time out their own lives that makes me thankful," said Bowler concerning his SEADOGS team.

Radach said Ki, a chocolate Labrador, started doing search and rescue when she was 2 years old. Ki, now 6, is Radach's second search and rescue dog.

"I've always got along with dogs better than people. It seemed pretty natural," Radach said.

He also enjoys being on a team, and says that finding people is always rewarding.

Being a SEADOGS isn't easy, and it takes a lot of dedication as well as money.

"Each one of us puts more than 3,000 dollars a year out of our own pocket to maintain efficient public demand," Bowler said.

SEADOGS requirements vary from intermediate to advanced back-country skills, first-aid to map and compass skills.

"We look for people who bring these skills to the team, we simply cannot train people, he said. All our time is spent working with dogs to bring them up to standards. We have a 60 to 70 percent washout rate," Bowler said. "In many ways we have higher standards than national standards."

Presently, the SEADOGS have three new candidates.

"Search and rescue is a classic mystery. It's our job to sift through clues and hope that they will lead us to the lost," Bowler said.