Cutter Sherman crew and North Slope Borough, Alaska, volunteers swap search and rescue ideas

Story and photos by Chief Petty Officer John Masson
9th District Public Affairs, attached to Operation Arctic Shield

People have been disappearing in the Arctic for as long as there have been people in the Arctic. Difficult terrain, unpredictable weather and an unforgiving sea make survival difficult for even the most experienced Native Alaskans, many of whom have made their living for uncounted generations hunting and fishing the vast stretches of Alaska’s North Slope and the adjoining Arctic Ocean. That may be why so many residents of the North Slope Borough, the northernmost municipality in the United States, volunteer today for search and rescue duty. Some have been personally touched by the tragedy of family members lost at sea or in the borough’s virtually untouched wilderness.

Village children and crewmembers from CGC Sherman take a break while crewmembers await transportation back to their ship in Wainwright, Alaska July 13, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer John Masson.

And that’s also why crewmembers aboard Coast Guard Cutter Sherman, deployed to the Arctic in support of Operation Arctic Shield 2017, met this month with SAR volunteers in several Arctic communities as partners – partners whose institutional memory of the land and sea stretches back hundreds of years.

The first meeting between SAR operators from Sherman and their local counterparts happened July 11 at Point Hope, Alaska, also known by the Native name Tikigaq. Local volunteers swapped ideas about VHF communications, how to get in touch with Coast Guard assets that are patrolling the area, and more.

Sherman’s visits to other North Slope villages, including Point Lay, Wainwright, and Barrow, followed a similar pattern.

Inside the fire halls and schools, Chief Petty Officer Jeremy Borja, Petty Officer 1st Class Dylan Skidmore, Ensign Andrew Caudill and other Coast Guard SAR operators swapped tactics with firefighters and SAR volunteers and answered questions posed by several local officials about what to do when vessels show up unannounced off their villages – a more frequent occurrence as vessel traffic in the region increases.

At the same time, employees of North Borough Search and Rescue and other Sherman crewmembers worked with village children, stressing the importance of always wearing a life jacket on the water. In Barrow, Borja and Ensign Brandon Newman conducted boating safety outreach on local radio station KBRW.

Over the course of several days, Sherman crewmembers revealed a number of hidden talents, from face-painting to making balloon animals. At Wainwright, Petty Officer 2nd Class Luis Blas even gave free haircuts to several villagers, including 72-year-old Rachael Anashugak, a longtime resident of Wainwright and Barrow.

“We are glad to have you here,” Anashugak said. “Welcome, welcome to Wainwright.”

And the Coast Guard members were clearly glad to be there, as well, judging by the eagerness of crewmembers to get ashore and learn about the villages.

Many will be back in the Arctic again, as Sherman is returning this fall for another patrol. It’s the continuation of more than 150 years of Coast Guard presence in the Arctic, which began as soon as the land became U.S. territory in 1867. The Coast Guardsmen and North Borough employees distributed whistles, lanyards, and other souvenirs to eager children and conducted structured games, such as life jacket relay races, to help the children get familiar with donning and wearing a lifejacket.

“The kids, I’m pretty sure they’re listening,” said Point Hope firefighter Bill Solomon as he watched the local children. “It’s not just informational, with the demonstrations.” North Slope Borough Risk Manager Frederick Brower, who worked hard to help coordinate the cutter’s North Slope visits and was on hand at each stop, agreed. “It’s more of a hands-on approach,” he said. “And that really helps set in stone what you learn.”

Vast numbers of hot dogs, grilled in the fire hall’s driveways, completed the festive atmosphere in the smaller villages. And the visitors made a point to leave a few lifejackets in each village, as well, as part of the State of Alaska’s Kids Don’t Float life jacket loaner program.

For the SAR volunteers, the gatherings were an opportunity to learn more about Coast Guard SAR patterns, drift calculations, and communications systems, said Borja, an operations specialist. Because VHF-FM radios are widely monitored in Arctic villages, the response to a test of Digital Selective Calling – a feature that allows someone in trouble to push a button on their radio and sound an alarm on all similarly equipped VHF radios in range – was especially enlightening for villagers, many of whom called in to the local SAR offices after the test to make sure nobody was in distress, he said.

Other ideas swapped between Coast Guard and local SAR officials included scheduled VHF weather transmissions and ways to increase the range of local radios. SAR volunteers also were extremely interested in the search capabilities a high endurance cutter such as Sherman and its deployed helicopter bring to their communities. The Coast Guard presence is increasing as seasonal ice recedes in the Arctic, a pattern that’s been noted by North Slope residents.

“Their two biggest challenges are the size of the area and the limits of their capability. Everything is so remote. They rely heavily on their local assets,” said Skidmore, a boatswain’s mate. “You have guys that have literally grown up in these villages, and they’re the guys actually running the searches. They know these waters. They have a knowledge base that far exceeds anything we have.”

In cases where searchers locate people, Skidmore added, the North Slope Borough’s aircraft are well-equipped to medically evacuate anyone who is injured.

“That’s the part that impressed me the most: how extensive their medevac capabilitiy is,” Skidmore said. “They have numerous aircraft of different types. I can see that being a function of the area they have to cover, and the fact that they’re doing both inland and maritime search and rescue.”

Arctic Alaskans have been conducting search and rescue operations for as long as people have been living here, Skidmore said, and they have well-established systems – and some innovative ideas – of their own.

Johnny Adams, for example – a 17-year board member of Barrow Volunteer Search and Rescue – has been working to mark the heavily used trails between Wainwright and Atqasuk and between Wainwright and Barrow with reflective stakes that stand more than six feet tall. The stakes, located every 500 feet, are marked ATQ on the side heading toward Atqasuk, for example, and AIN for Wainwright on the side heading toward that town, and are a more effective way to mark a trail than traditional methods.

Chief Petty Officer Jeremy Borja of Coast Guard Cutter Sherman explains the importance of wearing a properly fitted life jacket to village children in Point Lay, Alaska July 12, 2017 while Chief Petty Officer Casey Jones looks on. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer John Masson.

Because it’s always better to prevent a SAR case than conduct one, especially in the roadless interior traversed by the paths, Adams’ goal is to cover all 78 air miles of the trails – probably more than 100 miles on the ground. He said the Wainwright to Barrow trail is about 60 percent marked with the new stakes.

SAR volunteers also urge local hunters to check out one of about 100 free personal locator beacons owned by the service before they head out into the bush.

“We tell them to set it and don’t move it if they get in trouble,” Adams said. “One little movement makes a big difference.”

Finally, the Barrow SAR office maintains a list with the precise latitude and longitude of each established family hunting camp in their area of responsibility. Because many Native Alaskans routinely hunt caribou, goose, and duck from the camps during the spring, knowing the camps’ coordinates can provide important clues if someone gets in trouble.

In summer, Adams said, the focus shifts to small boats plying the Arctic waters, where Native Alaskans hunt walrus, bearded seal and set nets for fish.

“There’s a lot of activity in the summertime, and we’ve been training with the Coast Guard for the last three years,” said Adams, who got involved with SAR after serving as an Army medic during the Vietnam era. “Saving lives, that was our job then.”

It still is.

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