The first call came from snowmobilers near the old mining town of Murray, Idaho. Dusk had set in, and the caller was worried about a man who had gotten separated from his group.
Shortly afterward, the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Department got another call about a lost snowmobiler. This one had failed to meet a friend near Wallace.
Emergency calls from winter recreationists are common at the Shoshone County sheriff’s department, but the past two Saturdays were particularly busy. Deputies launched five search and rescue efforts to help a hurt snowmobiler and find skiers and snowmobilers who got lost or failed to return on time.
Sheriff Mitch Alexander isn’t surprised that people flock to Idaho’s Silver Valley to enjoy the snow. But extricating them from risky situations taxes his 12-deputy department, which is responsible for patrolling thousands of miles of mountainous terrain.
“Our county is bigger than Rhode Island and bigger than Delaware,” Alexander said. “People don’t realize how big it is … (and) I’ve got a limited number of deputies.”
In Idaho, sheriff’s departments are responsible for search and rescue efforts. The Shoshone County Sheriff’s Department works closely with the U.S. Forest Service, two volunteer search and rescue teams, local ski resorts and even Fairchild Air Force Base, which sends out helicopters when needed.
“They do it for free,” Alexander said of the air support. “But the bottom line is that the taxpayers pick up the costs.”
His department also pays out thousands of dollars in overtime costs each year to deputies called out on complicated search and rescue missions. Some of the calls could be avoided if people stayed with their groups or didn’t embark on solo trips, Alexander said.
The emergency calls received the past two weekends are typical of those fielded by the department.
On Saturday afternoon, a Chewelah, Wash., man got separated from his group of snowmobilers near Murray. The sheriff’s department called in a helicopter from Fairchild to help find the 62-year-old snowmobiler, who was located while the helicopter was en route.
The helicopter was diverted to Wallace to search for Kevin Gouin, 50, of Spokane, who hadn’t returned to meet his friend. The two men had separated when the friend’s snowmobile broke down and Gouin left to get the truck. But Gouin’s snowmobile ran out of gas, and his friend called the sheriff’s department when Gouin hadn’t returned after five hours, said Gouin’s wife, Brenda, in a phone interview Tuesday evening.
Her husband was OK, but he ended up hiking about 10 miles to reach Avery, Idaho. The men hadn’t realized how far up in the mountains they were, Brenda Gouin said.
The previous Saturday was even busier. On Jan. 21, a 23-year-old snowmobiler’s leg was broken in an accident just after 2:30 p.m. Three deputies and an employee from Shoshone Medical Center responded to the call.
About two hours later, three juveniles who tried to ski and snowboard down the gondola tower line from Silver Mountain got stuck. With dusk falling, they called the sheriff’s department for help. The sheriff’s department contacted the Silver Mountain ski patrol, and a ski resort employee was able to reach the youths and reunite them with their families.
Just before 6 that evening, a backcountry skier was reported missing in whiteout conditions in the Pine Creek area. The skier later called the sheriff’s department and reported his GPS coordinates, which helped searchers locate him.
Alexander encourages people to carry personal locater beacons or a satellite messenger, which reduces the search time. They should carry the supplies that would help them survive a night in the woods. And, people should leave detailed information about where they’ll be.
He recalls taking a call from one distraught woman. “My husband’s lost. He’s down in the St. Joe,” she told him.
“You’re talking about an area that’s just huge,” Alexander said. “The St. Joe is half of our county.”
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