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Members of the Big Sky Search and Rescue squad after the completion of a recent rescue. PHOTO COURTESY OF BSSAR

The evolution of search and rescue in and around Big Sky

By Brandon Walker EBS COMMUNITY EDITOR

BIG SKY – You’re driving Highway 191 through Gallatin Canyon when you see a car accident. It’s spring of 1991, so there aren’t any guardrails yet, and when the vehicle went off the road it landed in the middle of the river. A family is stranded on top of the car, surrounded by heavy spring runoff, and no one can help them. Eventually the water sweeps them away.

Three of the four white crosses below Deer Creek in Gallatin Canyon are constant reminders of this tragic story.

Members of Big Sky Search and Rescue in action on a winter day. PHOTO COURTESY OF BSSAR

The following year, a group of six community members formed the Big Sky Search and Rescue team. Ed Hake, a founding member and a current board member, cited that horrible day as one of multiple instances that drove the group to found the BSSAR team.

A sector of the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department, BSSAR is one of 11 branches in Gallatin County’s search and rescue hierarchy. GCSAR also includes an Alpine team, West Yellowstone search and rescue, the Civil Air Patrol and the Western Montana Search Dogs, to name a few.

“We are so resource-rich in this county, with the volunteer skill sets we have, that we created individual groups that were technical experts at alpine climbing, skiing, snowmobiling, divers, dogs …” said retired Gallatin County Sheriff’s office search and rescue commander Jason Jarrett. “Three groups are generalist groups—West Yellowstone, Big Sky, and the [Sheriff’s] posse. They do a little of everything, but then they’re supported by those technical specialists.”

A Big Sky Search and Rescue member is pictured repelling down a snow-covered cliff face. PHOTO COURTESY OF BSSAR

GCSAR formed in 1986 with the passing vote of a mill levy, which provided funding for training, daily operations, and equipment.

In BSSAR’s infancy, the team’s volunteer members provided their own equipment. “It was just personal equipment, whatever we had,” Hake said. At times, the organization even used snowmobiles from Hake’s business, Canyon Adventures.

According to Big Sky Resort Tax records, after BSSAR received its first public funding from the resort tax board in 1994, the team began purchasing first aid supplies, gear and vehicles. The group now funds regular trainings every month and finished construction on its own building in 2009. The BSSAR “cache,” as it’s called, provided a permanent home for the organization and its equipment, but most importantly, a place to meet and prepare for a SAR mission and hold trainings.

Prior to construction of the building, a modest truck and trailer located near Canyon Adventures served as the organization’s headquarters, according to current BSSAR President Jeff Trulen.  

An experienced backcountry snowmobiler, Trulen has been involved with BSSAR since 2005. He originally joined the team as “a way to get to know people and hang out with like-minded folks,” he said. “Plus [it] was good Karma for all the dicey stuff we somehow managed to survive back in the day.”

Members of Big Sky Search and Rescue make their way back up a steep hillside. PHOTO COURTESY OF BSSAR

Today, the Big Sky squad has grown from the original six founding members to more than 40 volunteers, many of whom are also firefighters, paramedics and ski patrollers. “The people that we have on search and rescue now are some of the best trained people in Montana, if not the entire western U.S.,” Hake said.

GCSAR has been expanding, as well, with more than 150 volunteers lending a hand throughout the region. “It is much more capable, much more consistent, and much more nimble in its abilities to solve the problems that our community finds itself in,” said Jarrett, a 24-year veteran of the GC Sheriff’s office who was also involved with search and rescue for more than 35.

Gallatin Country Search and Rescue, which is the busiest SAR county in the state and immediate surrounding area, fielded 101 distress calls in 2018 according to the Gallatin County Search and Rescue strategic plan.

“The interesting piece is that we by far have more activity than anybody else around,” Jarrett said. “I mean, several states around. We run about 100 calls a year, [and] the next busiest places are running 50 [or] 60 calls a year. It’s a very outdoor activity-oriented community, all the way to West Yellowstone. We don’t have people that’re more gravity challenged than anybody else, we just have so many more people outside.”

Of those calls, nearly two-thirds of the individuals requesting help are Gallatin County locals, according to GCSAR’s strategic plan. Big Sky accounts for about 25 percent of GCSAR call volume annually, and the rescues are usually in response to common injuries, Jarrett explained. According to Trulen, the BSSAR president, Big Sky Search and Rescue specifically responded to 19 distress call in 2019, which was less than a typical year. The amount of calls averages around 24 each year has remained relatively constant since the organization’s inception.

But each call is different, so rescuers must not only be skilled, but flexible. “It feels good to be in a position to help people who are not having such a good day. Each call is different in that you could be dealing with the issue for two hours or two days…or in rare cases two [to] three months,” said Trulen.

Now 28 years later, Hake is the only founding member still involved in BSSAR. “Very, very proud of what Big Sky Search and Rescue has become,” he said. Looking back, he believes things could have gone differently in 1991, if only someone had the knowledge and equipment to help. To this day, he carries his rescue gear with him everywhere he goes—especially in the spring.

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