Alaska canines practice avalanche search and rescue in Hatcher Pass

Published: Mar. 25, 2018 at 6:07 PM AKDT
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Canine search and rescue teams from across Alaska met in Hatcher Pass this weekend to practice avalanche rescue techniques together during a three-day workshop.

The annual training event is held in memory of Mel Nading, an Alaska State Troopers pilot who died tragically in a helicopter crash in 2013. About 20 teams from as far away as Fairbanks, Juneau and Bethel attended this year’s workshop.

On Sunday, they performed practice drills on the debris field of a real avalanche near the Gold Mint trailhead. Less than a week ago, the road in this area was closed off for days by two major avalanches. Fortunately there were no injuries, but Alaska’s search and rescue dogs can never be too prepared.

“Colorado has the highest number of avalanche fatalities in any given state, but Alaska is right behind in numbers,” said Susan Purvis, who has been training avalanche rescue dogs across the world for several years.

For groups like MATSAR Search and Rescue in the Mat-Su Borough, a well-trained canine can be the difference between life and death for someone buried in an avalanche.

“It's all about that nose,” said MATSAR president Jason Williams. “They can sniff and smell a lot better than humans can. Therefore they're able to detect someone buried in the snow and we use them for that purpose and this workshop is allowing to hone our skills.”

But training a good rescue dog can be a lengthy endeavor. According to Purvis, it takes up to three years for a dog to get avalanche certification, and that’s just the beginning.

“That’s just like going to kindergarten. Then you have another 10 years to become fluent,” she said. “We like to say our dogs are the $100,000 dogs.”

But for many trainers, it’s a commitment that comes as a result of deep personal experiences.

“I actually got caught in an avalanche with my very first search dog and she saved me and three others,” said Stacie Burkhart, who has been working with avalanche dogs for about 20 years.

“From that point on, I decided I was going to get into search and rescue.”