UTQIAĠVIK — The call for help came in around 10 p.m. one recent December night at the Barrow Search and Rescue headquarters.
When someone is lost or stranded in the wild lands within 25 miles of town, the volunteers take the lead. Often, the one in danger is a young person, volunteers say.
Rescues along Alaska’s North Slope got a boost more than 20 years ago with the modern technology of personal locator beacons. Now old-school tools are being improved to help travelers and searchers alike. Trails between villages are being staked out. Giant new maps were printed in the last couple of years that show hundreds of camps and cabins. Searchers can better pinpoint those in need.
In Anchorage, city police usually lead searches. In some parts of the state, Alaska State Troopers head up efforts. But in Bush Alaska, it’s usually volunteers who take charge.
In the North Slope Borough, the local government and volunteer search groups work together to cover a region of 92,000 square miles stretching from the Chukchi and Beaufort seas down to the Brooks Range.
“If they waited for us to get resources up there, they’d be dead,” said troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters. “People are going to get up and go. They are not going to sit. That’s not how you save lives.”
Across the borough, there are 15 to 20 search and rescue missions a month, counting those handled by village-based volunteers, said April Brower, North Slope Borough search and rescue director.
In Utqiaġvik, the hub community that just changed its name from Barrow, the borough hangar holds a Lear jet, a Beechcraft turbo prop and three helicopters including a Russian-made Sikorsky, said Jess McCoy, search and rescue deputy director. The search and rescue program, which also handles medevacs, has 15 pilots, seven mechanics and four administrative staff members, he said.
The borough has a healthier budget than most Alaska governments because it taxes oil properties including the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Within 25 miles of a village, local volunteers typically handle searches and sometimes they go beyond that, McCoy said. They also take the lead for searches in water, he said.
“A lot of these volunteers are subsistence hunters,” he said. “They know their area. They know the land. We rely highly on their ability to initiate the search. We are there to assist.”
In a program that started in the early 1990s, the North Slope Borough has distributed almost 400 personal locator beacons among the region’s eight villages. Travelers are urged to check them out, for free, from their local search and rescue office or the borough hangar.
Back in 1997, the borough was the first to respond in what remains its biggest rescue operation ever. Bowhead whaling crews were camped on sea ice when suddenly ice broke free and began drifting away. In all, through multiple airlifts, 173 whaling crew members were rescued, Brower said. The borough later returned for equipment: 166 snowmachines, 67 whaling boats and generations of treasured gear.
Most of the Barrow group’s rescues happen in the triangle between Wainwright, Atqasuk and Utqiaġvik, said Steven Leavitt, one of the volunteers. Devil’s triangle, he said.
On a day in mid-December, a family group of four zoomed out of town on two snowmachines for what they thought would be a quick caribou hunting trip. Both snowmobiles broke down. The family made it to a beachside rescue cabin. It was unheated, and they weren’t prepared to camp. They called Barrow Search and Rescue on a cellphone.
Outside, the wind declared itself. It was just below zero. That’s warmer than average for December in the country’s farthest-north city, yet dangerously cold for winter travelers.
A dispatcher and a volunteer put on extra layers and warm boots then set out on snowmachines to bring the hunters home. The emergency shack was well-known to searchers, but they had the backup of the new maps with search grids.
From early morning to late at night, the Barrow volunteers hang out at headquarters drinking coffee, playing cards, watching the big-screen TV and providing support for searchers.
The building started as not much more than a shack but has been expanded and renovated over the years. There’s storage for snowmachines on site and across the street a just-improved building for boats, four-wheelers and a well-used Argo.
Maybe 100 residents are members of Barrow Search and Rescue, which is funded with pull-tabs and Bingo, leaders said. Most of the core group of volunteers are men in their 40s, 50s or 60s.
Almost all who need a rescue are young adults ages 18 to 25 who don’t know the terrain well or leave home without the right gear, said Johnny Adams, Barrow Search and Rescue vice president for 10 years. He has volunteered with the group for decades and got early training as an Army medic.
“Some kids are very fortunate,” Adams said one recent night. “Two I know that lost their feet. Others we found barely walking and fortunately alive, but cold.” Hypothermia was just setting in.
Rescuers recommend that travelers bring extra fuel, food and water, camping gear, warm layers, a personal locator beacon, a radio or satellite phone, and a compass. They also should file a trip plan with their local search and rescue office, rescuers said.
“They are not prepared for this kind of weather. Someone needs to teach them the kind of weather we are living in,” Adams said.
When he was young, he said, he learned the land and navigated by compass.
“That’s all I ever needed,” Adams said. “Because I was raised up in the country.”
This summer, Barrow Search and Rescue kicked off a trail marker project for the routes between Utqiaġvik — or Barrow — Wainwright and Atqasuk. Volunteers from the communities traveled by four-wheeler to insert durable stakes down to the permafrost along old Bureau of Land Management trails.
A charity, the Arctic Slope Community Foundation, paid for the markers, according to the North Slope Borough. They are logged by GPS coordinates.
The marking isn’t yet complete but already it is helping to keep people safe, borough officials said. The trail between Wainwright and Atqasuk is especially well-used because the inland village has cheaper fuel thanks to a subsidy, McCoy of the borough said.
“The markers will come in handy for our young travelers who are not familiar with the area,” Brower said.
The borough led another big project, to map cabins and camps across thousands of square miles. Grant money funneled through the state from National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska oil revenue paid for that project, done in 2014, Brower said.
More than 450 cabins and camps now are on the map, with four-letter identifiers for each one. A borough pilot can key the cabin code into electronic aviation equipment and be guided to the spot, McCoy said.
That night in December, the two searchers found the stranded hunting party and started to bring them back to town, Leavitt said. But the father was having heart trouble. One of the searchers used a radio with a just-broken antenna to reach Adams at headquarters, Leavitt said.
Adams contacted the borough, which dispatched a helicopter.
On a bitter cold night, everyone made it back safely.