(I wonder how they get away with it?)
ATV riders form specialized search-and-rescue squad MAT-SAR: Troopers welcome help in fast-growing region of state since many residents lack outdoor skills.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER
Anchorage Daily News
(Published: July 14, 2004)
The Valley's dense web of off-road trails -- and rising number of users -- begs for aid from ATV-riding rescuers who can ferry supplies and people, or conduct searches themselves, even if foul weather keeps air searchers on the ground, according to backers of the new program.
Others such as the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group or state parks officials have access to ATVs, but Mat-SAR is the first to specialize.
The Alaska State Troopers, charged with coordinating backcountry rescues, are happy to have the help, said Lt. John Papasodora, the troopers' emergency operations supervisor. "This is something that was missing from our (search-and-rescue) repertoire," Papasodora said. "It's probably the most popular form of backcountry conveyance in Alaska. It makes common sense to me."
The need is regional and rising, he said. In recent years, the part of the state with the most rescues has shifted from the villages of western Alaska to the population centers of Southcentral, as well as Southeast. And don't think it's only out-of-staters getting into trouble.
A helicopter crew last May found an Anchorage man lost in Nancy Lake State Recreation Area -- an eighth of a mile from the trail. Last August, rescuers repeatedly flew over a lost Chugiak couple overdue from a caribou hunting trip near Eureka as they huddled under a camouflage tarp that effectively hid them from sight.
Actually, the idea for the ATV search-and-rescue group arose with those two Chugiak hunters, a man and woman stranded about 45 miles from Eureka.
One of the group's founders, Steve Ratey, knew the mother of one of the hunters and watched her fret. He realized that a team of trained, officially sanctioned rescuers on ATVs could have been a huge help.
"There are five ATVs sold a week in Alaska," Ratey said. "That's a preponderance ... of individuals going into the backcountry. The majority of them, we find, are not equipped, either with experience or wherewithal, to deal with the remote aspects of Alaska."
The six guys on the Mat-SAR board of directors met through worship as Jehovah's Witnesses, according to member John San Roman, a buyer for DiTomaso Fruits and Vegetables in Anchorage. All are Palmer residents, hunters and ATV aficionados.
The unofficial leader of the group is Ratey, a crewcut electrician with military manners who spent five years in the 1990s as a medic on a high-angle rescue team in New York City, a stint that included rescuing a window washer trapped on his perch 17 floors up. Now the Kodiak-born electrician, who moved back to Alaska with his wife eight years ago, wants to put his volunteerism and survival skills to wider use here.
Mat-SAR has acquired nonprofit status, so Ratey wants to start adding members, from about a dozen to as many as 50.
The group meets once every six weeks. Because they are working with the troopers, they are covered by the state's liability insurance. Members voluntarily undergo background checks and are expected to possess outdoor survival skills, an ATV and a team mentality.
Board members say training and public education will be priorities.
San Roman said he has learned personal lessons on preparation, "as far as clothing, fire starting materials, extra clothes, space blankets, compass. Not to rely on electronics, because batteries go dead."
The group becomes one of many volunteer organizations used by the troopers, responsible for all land-based search and rescues in the state. They join groups such as the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, SAR groups in Juneau and Ketchikan, the Mat-Su Borough Dive Water Rescue Team and the Backcountry Avalanche Awareness Response Team.
The troopers act as a rescue clearinghouse. If someone calls 911 to report a potential rescue, dispatchers relay calls to volunteer organizations qualified to help.
Mat-SAR's base in the Valley is a plus, according to Ron Durheim, acting chief of the borough dive team.
Recreation here in the state's fastest growing area is booming along with the population.
One weekend last year, Durheim said, officials counted nearly 1,000 people boating, four-wheeling or fishing on the Knik River alone.
"The Valley is growing so much," he said. "We have so many more people recreating and getting further off-road that it's more of a challenge to be able to bring people out, and sometimes to find them."Reporter Zaz Hollander can be reached at [email protected].