SHERIDAN — Last week, several regional agencies were involved with a search and rescue operation for a lost hunter in the Bighorn Mountains. The man was found alive and alert after a three-day search. For search and rescue team members, the action doesn’t stop when the person is found.
A Johnson County Search and Rescue team with two ranchers on horseback found 61-year-old Kansas resident Rudy Miller Oct. 2 at approximately 11:20 a.m., according to the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office.
When the call came in that Miller had been found, Sheridan County Search and Rescue volunteer Bob Aksamit breathed a sigh of relief. But for some team members who were searching 10 miles away, it was a long walk back. It took days to move all the equipment off the mountain.
Aksamit walked in his front door at 1 a.m. Oct. 3 after the three-day search and rescue operation through fog, rain and snow concluded.
Aksamit has been a volunteer with SCSR since 2006 and has been involved in several searches for missing people in the area.
Each search has its own challenges but the tactics used during a search and rescue mission are fairly consistent, Aksamit said.
This time, with extreme weather conditions and Miller’s reported medical history, crews maintained a sense of urgency throughout the operation, he said.
A “hasty team” was on site searching for Miller within about 15 minutes of the dispatch call. When Aksamit joined the search later that evening, he completed about 10 miles on foot.
As SCSR continued to gather information from the reporting party about Miller’s disappearance, more teams were deployed. It was quickly determined the first night of the search that poor visibility would necessitate more volunteers, Aksamit said.
“It’s one thing to be able to see a mile or two out but when you can only see 20 feet, you definitely need more people on the ground,” he said.
SCSR, Johnson County Search and Rescue, Big Horn County Search and Rescue teams were involved in the search by Oct. 1.
Community members pitched in to help too, Aksamit said. Ranchers brought horses from Dayton and some hunters aborted their hunting plans to join the search.
Sometimes, having community members involved can complicate a search because inexperienced people can destroy clues or increase the likelihood that someone else will become lost. In this case, community support was helpful and appreciated, Aksamit said.
“We welcome the help as long as it’s organized,” he said.
Miller was found tucked under a rock that Aksamit had seen the first day of the search when Miller wasn’t there — unless he was in the area sleeping and hidden by the thick fog, Aksamit said.
Aksamit searched for areas where Miller could have stayed warm and dry because it’s the smart thing to do in tough weather conditions, Aksamit said.
“For a flatlander he did pretty good,” SCSR volunteer Rene DeLuna said.
Miller is suspected to have been wandering through different trails and drainage areas while trying to orient himself in the fog, Aksamit said. Miller is Amish, which may have supported his ability to handle being outdoors for several days, he said.
“One of the things as search and rescue that we really do try to teach is if you’re lost, don’t wander. Stay put,” Ferriman said.
Colin Ferriman said one issue with this search was there was limited ATV access to the trails. Most of the search was completed on foot or horseback.
When Ferriman joined the mission to help map the search the morning after the call-out, it appeared as though teams had already covered nearly every major trail in the area, he said.
By Oct. 1, 36 personnel were involved in the search including DeLuna, who focused on creating missions for teams, tracking reported clues and managing communications with the Wyoming Air National Guard standby helicopter. Teams were looking for foot tracks, marks in the grass and other signs of Miller’s presence.
“As clues go, this search didn’t have a lot of them,” Ferriman said.
SCSR’s monthly trainings help prepare them for searches like this. The group is a highly-trained team of volunteers, Ferriman said.
One challenge for any search is having the money upfront to fund the mission however long it lasts, Ferriman said. SCSR is funded by private donations, a One-Cent Sales Tax from the county and the U.S. Forest Service.
Individual search and rescue offices can be reimbursed by the state for costs but SCSR has to maintain a fairly robust bank account in anticipation of missions, Ferriman said.
Some searches can cost tens of thousands of dollars because of aerial support, equipment and fuel, he said. The search for Miller cost about $1,200, not including expenses from the other counties involved.
Ferriman said he doesn’t want families to consider the cost when thinking about whether to call in a missing person. SCSR covers the cost of a search, Ferriman said, unlike crews in some states that can hold individuals liable for the cost of the search that rescued them.
“If somebody is lost, don’t wait, just call,” he said.
Rene DeLuna, who has been with SCSR since 1992, said he was skeptical that Miller would be found alive by the end of day two — a thought that is often in the back of his mind during a search.
“We try not to think that,” Aksamit said. “It’s our job to bring them back…we search until our sheriff says ‘no more.’ Our primary search is we are going to bring that person back alive.”
SCSR volunteers have seen remarkable resiliency among people in worse conditions. People are tough if they have the right attitude, Ferriman said.
It’s important to stay warm and in one location; teams may be able to develop a sense of where someone has been but not where they are headed, Ferriman said.
People going hiking or hunting should inform someone where they are going, otherwise SCSR doesn’t get called, he said. It is helpful for crews to know what vehicle a person was driving and what they were wearing or carrying with them, Aksamit said.
During the search for Miller, temperatures maintained around 20-30 degrees because of the fog, Aksamit said. If it had been clear, temperatures could have dropped down to near zero.
“I think he was fortunate that the weather was socked in, other than it kept him lost, I think it also kept him alive,” Aksamit said.
SCSR tries to keep search groups out in the field for a maximum of eight hours at a time — a difficult task with such a broad search area, Aksamit said. He was involved with the search for more than 40 hours before he went to sleep.
Over the three days, SCSR team members collected new information and reinterviewed the reporting party to see if details changed. Any of those updates can influence search areas, Aksamit said.
New information, normal human habits, age and ability can influence search areas as a mission continues, Aksamit said. For example, the exact time Miller separated from the hunting party was several hours later than originally reported.
Ferriman used statistical analysis to build search rings based on where he’d mostly likely be found. Miller was found in 50% likelihood ring but is suspected to have walked in and out of that area, Aksamit said.
DeLuna said in the past, SCSR has been sent on more than 20 searches throughout a year. Last year, SCSR responded to seven calls, most of which were called off before they made it into the field. The search for Miller was the fifth search this year.
Weather is key factor to an increase in search and rescue operations, Ferriman said. SCSR also participates in events; ready on site if someone is lost during a run, for example.
“Having us allows those events to be safer,” Ferriman said. “It allows us to continue our training too.”
DeLuna said he finds gratification as an SCSR volunteer from the reaction of the people he helps. Ferriman said he volunteers because he would want someone out there looking for his family if they needed help.