One thing about this job is that every day is different. If I had a dollar for every time someone said, “That rarely happens up here,” I wouldn’t be rich, but I definitely would have enough for a nice dinner and a movie. It’s part of the job, and one I generally enjoy, because the variety keeps it interesting, but there are times when I do long for a really boring day. Friday started off OK. Generally in the morning I make the rounds checking in with people before the long weekend, and while I was driving to the campsites I came across an adorable little dog standing in the road. This was definitely a “city dog,” tiny and coiffed, and the poor thing was shaking because it had no idea where to go. I stopped the truck and scooped her up and then took her down to the nearest campground, where luckily we were able to reunite her with the owner. Maggie was really glad to be back with her people, and I felt really good because it’s such a big area I just felt lucky we got her before she wandered into the larger woods, which would have been very bad for a dog her size.
After the reunion, I headed towards the next campground and learned that we had an incident with some drunken raccoons. Yep, you read that right. We have recycling stations in all of the campgrounds and several camp hosts have noticed slits in the bottom of the bags and cans strewn about. At first we thought it was kids or maybe can thieves (at 10 cents a can yes that is a thing up here), but one of my hosts saw a very unstable raccoon wobbling away from the bag area. Turns out that the leftover soda (and beer) is pretty tempting to them, and we think they are drinking the beer leftovers and getting drunk. When this problem was presented to me, I’ll be honest I absolutely drew a blank. Drunken raccoons is outside of my area of expertise, so I told the camp host I would have to get back with them on a solution. It was funny, don’t get me wrong, but raccoons are wild animals and it’s definitely something we will need to keep an eye on. Plus it was one more oddball thing to had to the list of “we’ve never seen that before.”
Those two incidents ended up OK, and will make for nice stories to tell around a campfire, but the third one was not. I was hesitant about even writing about it here, but I am up at 3:30am, and those of you who have read this blog know that that’s what happens when I have a story I simply need to tell. So here goes.
After lunch I received a call on the radio that a horse had fallen into a ravine on a trail about a half a mile from one of our campgrounds. Since we are in a remote location, with spotty cell coverage, many people will come to our location when there is an incident because they know we have landlines. In this case, the incident happened in a spot in the forest where there was no cell coverage at all, but we have a radio system that reaches the spot so Lee and another employee immediately went to the scene and then hiked up the trail to see if they could help. What he came upon was pretty incredible, and since there is simply no way to adequately describe it I am going to include a picture.
In the first picture, you can see how far down they are from the ridge, and how difficult the boulder field is to maneuver in.
What I learned later was that two riders were on the upper edge of the ridge, and one of them was spraying bug spray, and got some into her eyes. She dismounted to deal with that, and while she was cleaning her eyes a hiker came along and the horse got a little spooked. It started stepping backwards, and took one step too many and went over the edge of the ridge, rolling down into a boulder field about 30-40′ below. The horse miraculously landed, mostly unharmed apart from a few abrasions, a hole deep enough that the surrounding boulders were a little higher than it’s back. It was surrounded by boulders bigger than itself, and although it probably could have climbed or scrambled out of the hole, there was literally nowhere for it to go. There was no clear way up to the bank and no way down to the water, so it was stuck on a ledge of rocks and wedged in this hole. The owner (who was unhurt thankfully) was with the horse trying to keep it calm, and one of the full-time company employees who happened to be in the area hiked up to the scene. It became clear pretty quickly that the only way to get the horse out was to lift it out with a helicopter, and a ton of radio traffic ensued as we tried to find the right organization who could help.
We called the sheriff’s office, who passed it to a volunteer rescue group, but because it was the Friday of Independence Day weekend around 2pm by this time, it was hard getting through to people. I was back in the office making these calls and relaying the information, when one of our other full time employees who had experience with helicopter logging came into the office and starting calling people he knew. The owner had the means to pay for a helicopter, but finding one that could handle a 1,000+ pound horse and had the rigging to do it was difficult. At this point I went up to the scene and left someone in the office to help field calls. Once I arrived, I saw that there was no easy solution. The horse was completely jammed in, and was getting more upset by the moment. They had some oral tranquilizers on hand which helped keep her calm, but it was difficult, and on a couple of occasions the horse was rearing up trying to get out, which could lead to a broken leg. After witnessing this a couple of times, I started to be concerned about the employees in the area. I gathered as much information as I could, got the names and number of several people I could contact for the owner, and then cleared as many people from the scene as I could. It was absolutely heartbreaking, and I knew there was no way we could leave her there with no support.
Once I got back to the office, things started happening pretty quickly. They had found a helicopter pilot who was willing to come, and I learned that for search and rescue missions we needed to block off the road to the dam so the helicopter would have a place to land. We actually had to secure three separate areas of the facility. The area the pilot would land, the area where the horse was, and the area where they planned on lowering the horse once it was airlifted out. All of this required coordination and a ton of people, but luckily I had lots of volunteers from the campground staff, and within 20 minutes we had a plan and people in place to execute it. The former logger (who had rigging experience) was taking the lead on coordinating the lift itself and our team provided the ground support they needed.
As much as I was worried about the horse, my primary responsibility are the people who work for me. We issued safety vests and hard hats to people, and every step of the way we talked about how we could handle this as safely as possible. During this time period, a full time employee never left the horse, and several people worked at the office making phone calls, relaying information from a veterinarian who was on the phone (several more doses of tranquilizer were administered by the owner), and coordinating with the humane society, forest service, and sheriff’s department. My biggest concern, other than landing a helicopter on the road across the dam, was the area the horse would be lowered. We had no idea what condition the horse would be in when it landed, and I didn’t want any of our people anywhere near it. Lee went to the campground a few miles away where the riders had started from, an equestrian campground, and got a friend of the horse owner to bring her truck and trailer to the “drop zone” so it could be trailered quickly. We also sent one of our camphosts to the equestrian campground to bring back some experienced horse people to take control of the horse, and remove the rigging and handle it as it landed. We also cordoned off the area, notified all the nearby campers, and had several people posted on the perimeter to keep the crowds away from the drop spot in the event the horse got loose.
When the helicopter pilot landed safely, I felt much better. The pilot was experienced at heavy lifts and rescues and put together a solid plan before getting into the air. At this point it was around 5:30pm and the horse was getting tired. Still the pilot made sure we understood the plan step-by-step and we set up three main areas with lead personnel at each scene. I took the area where the horse would be dropped off, because I thought that had the highest chance that someone might get hurt and worked out that the horse would not be released from the harness until he was secured on the ground. It was a long shot, but my thought was if the horse starting running wild through the campground someone could get really hurt and the safety of the campers and staff had to be my primary concern.
Finally the plan was in place and the pilot took off to the location with the employee who would be doing the rigging for a recon. After that he dropped off the rigger at the dam who then drove to the drop zone and from there hiked up to the horse. Once he had relayed the plan to the others at the horse’s location and rigged up the harness, the helicopter took off again and flew to the scene to hover while they connected the harness to a 100′ drop line from the helicopter. After 10 minutes or so of attempting to lift it, they decided to abort and re-rig the harness so the helicopter flew back to the dam. After re-rigging they tried again. From all accounts the pilot did an outstanding job, hovering in a gap in the trees while they tried to get the horse connected into its makeshift harness. The problem was the horse at this point was sitting on its haunches and they couldn’t get the netting completely underneath her. The second time they tried to lift the horse enough to adjust the harness while she was hanging, but again they were unsuccessful. At this point the pilot was worried about light and fuel, and said he could only make one more attempt.
I would love to tell you here that the third time it worked and the horse was carried to safety. I would love to say that everyone’s hard work and dedication and prayers worked and the horse survived. (Twenty-plus people who worked hard at this for nearly nine hours for someone none of them had ever met) But I can’t tell you that. I will say that everyone worked as hard as they could and the outcome was absolutely devastating for all involved. Ultimately the decision was made by the owner to put the horse down and it was done quickly and humanely. If this was a movie I would have some wonderful video to share with you of the horse being airlifted to safety. It wasn’t a movie though, it was real life, and as proud as I am of all the people who tried to help, I hope to God that nothing like this ever happens again.
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