An avalanche probe striking a body has a distinct feel. Not solid like a root or jarring like a rock. A body feels “spongy,” says Amanda Soliday, Training Officer of nonprofit Wyoming K-9 Search & Rescue [SAR]. “If you ever did it,” she says, “you’d just know.”
Ray Shriver knows. One of the most experienced dog handlers in the unit, in 2002 he hopped out of a helicopter in the Sheep Creek drainage to check yet another avalanche for any sign of missing skier Michael Dollarhide. A set of ski tracks entered one side of the slide and exited the other. At the toe of the avalanche, Teton County SAR team member Mark Muser spotted a water bottle. Both men knew that finding Dollarhide’s body had become a race against the sunset.
Shriver released his German shepherd, Kita, who put her nose down and went to work. Soon Kita started digging frantically. Ray poked his probe through the snow, and it came down firm but giving. Dollarhide was resting four feet below, downhill and face down, his skis under and behind him like anchors. His lunch remained half chewed in his mouth.
Apparently he had skied across the face and stopped on his return to sit, eat, and water up. He must’ve been shocked when the mountain gave way, must’ve swum for all he was worth to stay above the surface of the snow, but telemark bindings do not release and his skis dragged him down.
Dollarhide was Kita’s fourth “find,” a shock to Dollarhide’s family and friends but a necessary step along the trail of grief that meanders through the wilderness of acceptance and closure.
It is easy, isn’t it, for us who play in this wild backyard to forget the hazards? If you ever go missing in this vast country, if you injure yourself while skiing or topple from your boat into a river, who will come looking? And how will they find you or, God forbid, collect your remains? The difficulty and importance of such searches is the reason that in 1993 Wyoming K-9 SAR was founded.
The unit launched as a volunteer group of search dogs and handlers that nowadays works in concert with law enforcement and Teton County SAR looking for suspects and lost persons. Soliday says, “Our job is the locating. We tell them where, and they do the recovery.” When requested, the dogs and handlers will even conduct searches in surrounding states.
In the early spring of 1991, Ray Shriver was feeling the weight of an unpaid debt. He and his ten-year-old son, Matt, had barely survived an avalanche on Mt. Glory. “Why was I spared?” he asked himself. All he could think of was, I owe somebody something. Society, karma, God—whoever settles such tabs. A few years later, as a member of Teton County SAR, he watched handlers working their dogs in the K-9 unit and knew volunteering was his chance at payback. He didn’t own a dog and had no way of knowing the long hours and dedication that lay ahead.
Here are the numbers for Ray’s and Kita’s ten years of service: sixty searches and twelve finds, nine dead and three alive. Now thirteen years old, Kita has retired. Good dog. But Ray continues to serve in the unit in which the demands for training and searching never stop.
Why would anybody spend his or her own money on gear, travel, and expensive dogs? This ultimate game of hide and seek motivates Ray, a man whose quiet intensity increases when he describes the science of searching: running the cone, analyzing scene clues, following skin rafts, knowing one’s dog, and choosing the correct avalanche to search. He is one of seven dogs and handlers, all highly trained and certified in skills such as tracking, avalanche, water, cadaver, wilderness, human remains, evidence, and buildings.
Amanda Soliday has served the unit for eighteen years. Her first dog, Kodi, played a key role in her most memorable search, the one she can’t forget. In February of 1997 two-year-old Jessie Keller and her dog were riding with her drunk father in his pickup truck, which careened into frozen Five Mile Creek. Authorities found the father dead in the driver’s seat of the submerged vehicle. The dog was dead hanging halfway out of the windshield. But where was Jessie? Three weeks later, after another K-9 team came up empty, Soliday and Kodi were called to the scene but could not find her.
How can family and friends grieve without a body? How can a family look to the hills or gaze down a river and feel any measure of peace knowing their loved one is out there dead or alive—and lost?
Peace, or a measure of it, is the benefit K-9 SAR provides. When the ice began to thaw, Soliday and Kodi returned to the scene. Downriver in an eddy two miles from the crash site, Kodi alerted on two feet of snow and ice, but Soliday could not locate the girl. A week later, from that very spot, little Jessie floated to the surface.
Soliday attended Jessie’s memorial service. “It’s almost closure for you as much as for the family,” she says. Like other members of the unit, she understands the emotional toll on the searcher. “You have to remain a little aloof,” she says. But even today when recalling the Keller search, a tightness comes over her face. “Maybe it toughened me up a bit,” she says.
Soliday can’t seem to retire. She says the friendships and camaraderie are irreplaceable. Plus she finds meaning and satisfaction in the work. “There’s this incredible feeling that you’ve helped a family,” she says. These days Soliday continues with her current dog, six-year-old golden retriever Roscoe, who holds more search-skill certifications than any other dog in the unit.
Helping is the core mission of the unit, and the feeling of fulfillment intensifies when a dog and handler find a subject alive: a drunk man passed out in a tree well, a robbery suspect hidden in a construction culvert, a cross-country skier lost in Teton Canyon; a 70-ish Alzheimer’s patient missing from home.
Making these finds requires years of training and experience on the part of the dogs and handlers. Eventually, about the age of ten, a search dog must retire. Sometimes this juncture is the point when a handler retires, too. Now that Kita has retired, what will Ray Shriver do? Like Soliday, he’s staying. The unit’s purpose is too important, challenging, and satisfying.
These days Shriver sits at his office computer in the Teton County Planning Department, pecking away at his day job. A two-way radio sits beside him on the desk, and behind him on the floor lies the next generation, 1½ -year-old German shepherd Paco. Ray concentrates on his screen while Paco sleeps like a housedog. But at any moment, perhaps when you or someone you know goes missing, the radio will crackle and Shriver and Paco, Soliday and Roscoe, and the other pairs will load up and come looking.
Not long after this article was published, Ray died in a helicopter crash during a winter search and rescue mission on Togwotee Pass. His dogs, who were not with him on the search, survived him.