As a law enforcement ranger in Glacier National Park, Tony Robatzek never knows what to expect on each summer day. Wildfires. Human-wildlife conflicts. Car accidents. Anything and everything can pop up in the one-million-acre national park, and park rangers like Robatzek respond accordingly with the help of a robust local lineup of emergency responders.
In the bustling days of summer, when more than 2 million visitors regularly swarm Glacier Park, search-and-rescue incidents are an unfortunate yet common occurrence.
Last weekend, on July 1, two incidents popped up in a relatively short span that required immediate attention. One involved a hiker who accidentally activated a SPOT device calling for help, and another included someone in a hiking group who became separated and lost off trail, requiring extraction from Two Bear Air Rescue, which was already in the vicinity responding to the first request.
Some days see numerous medical or search-and-rescue calls. Last summer Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s ALERT air ambulance landed at Logan Pass five times in one day responding to various emergencies.
“Visitation has been going up 20 percent each year, and the (Going-to-the-Sun Road) seems to be at or above capacity a lot of the time,” Robatzek said. “We can get stretched pretty thin.”
This spring and summer have tested the capabilities of local resources, many of whom are volunteers through the Flathead County Search and Rescue Association and North Valley Rescue Association, two of the oldest search-and-rescue organizations in the state.
Last week Two Bear Air, a hoist-equipped, twin-engine Bell 429 helicopter with a crew, found and rescued a missing hiker near the Bull River in the Noxon area.
A week earlier, Two Bear Air assisted in the search and rescue of a 21-year-old man who was lost for four days in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
That same week, a deck collapsed in Lakeside, injuring more than 50 people and requiring the attention of all emergency medical responders in the valley. The ALERT helicopter landed on the property’s basketball court to remove some of the most severely injured victims.
In the middle of May, more than 60 people per day, including U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service staff, were involved in the weeklong search for a 23-year-old Arizona woman who went missing in the Great Bear Wilderness near Essex. That full-scale search involved scouring the dense forest for long hours each day before the woman, Madeline Connelly, was found alive and hoisted into Two Bear Air to be ferried to West Glacier for a medical examination.
During the Connelly search, three other requests for missing persons came into local dispatch, requiring resources to break away from the wilderness search. One of the calls resulted in a 28-day search that led to the discovery of a body in the Flathead River, which was later identified as Anthony Andrew Walthers, who was the victim of an alleged homicide.
The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, which has ultimate authority over search-and-rescue missions in the county, receives upwards of 120 calls in an average year, a trend that has continued to increase in recent years. To date in 2017, the Flathead County and North Valley search-and-rescue associations have logged more than 3,000 hours through searches and training, according to the sheriff’s office.
Indeed, summertime sees a frenetic pace of activity for the men and women who are on call at all hours of the day, without exceptions, prepared to drop everything and venture into the vast, rugged outdoors that define this corner of Montana.
“It’s all about the victim,” said Chris Roberts, search and rescue coordinator for the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office. “That’s the only thing that matters.”
Ask Pat Walsh about search and rescue, and he’ll tell you about family.
His father, Dick Walsh, was raised in Columbia Falls and joined the National Guard in 1940 to become part of the first wave of soldiers fighting in the South Pacific in World War II. He returned to the Flathead Valley in 1946 and ran for sheriff. He was elected and took office a year later.
In May 1947, a 10-year-old boy named Veon Kair slipped off a log into the icy Flathead River near Kalispell. As the only real go-to rescue resource, Walsh and his undersheriff, Ernie Baker, responded. The pair tied a rope to Walsh, who plunged into the river and tried to rescue the boy, who was clinging to a downed tree. Ultimately, Kair drowned, and Walsh was pulled to shore, unconscious.
Two months later, another young boy named Johnnie Vance died after falling into a river near Whitefish.
Together, these back-to-back tragedies served as a powerful catalyst. On the night of Vance’s funeral, Walsh and a group of concerned residents, mostly World War II veterans, banded together in an effort to better serve those in need, using the wide-ranging skills and abilities they developed during war. Seventy years ago this summer, they formed the Flathead Rescue and Lifesaving Association.
“The only requirement to be in the association was you had to have a horse,” said Pat Walsh, who was born in 1945 and grew up watching his father lead the local search-and-rescue missions.
Dick Walsh and others compiled equipment and supplies that could aid in their efforts, which were focused on three units: air, ground and water. A two-way radio system, high tech in those days, was acquired to direct search-and-rescue operations. Walsh and others developed individual districts and units assigned to those districts, manned entirely by volunteers. Some men began training in swift-water rescue, while others got their pilot’s licenses and used private aircraft to aid in missions. The heart of the association centered around former infantrymen who were in tip-top shape and could hike countless miles for days on end.
“For training, they’d go into the Bob Marshall every year and would spend several days in there,” recalled Pat Walsh, a retired Flathead County detective who is still involved in the efforts his father spearheaded. “To get out, they’d swim the Middle Fork.”
In addition to their wartime skills, the association members were skilled outdoorsmen who knew their way around the woods, which proved extremely beneficial during searches in the rugged terrain of Northwest Montana.
“There was no modern equipment or technology,” Walsh said. “They were all hunters and they knew how to track.”
“These were guys that if the whole world collapsed with a massive (electromagnetic pulse),” he added, “they’d have no trouble living today.”
The local rescue association was truly a pioneering operation. Both the organization and its young leader, 31-year-old Dick Walsh, received attention and accolades. In 1949, the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin showcased a prominent feature story about the Flathead Rescue and Lifesaving Association, noting that the organization had inspired similar efforts in states across the West.
“Every emergency call answered by the association is a story in itself, a true drama of courage, efficiency, and determination,” the article stated. “The work of the Flathead Rescue Association is a tribute to the people of the Flathead Valley and a milestone in the progress of lifesaving and rescue operations in America.”
Seventy years later, the legacy of the Flathead Rescue and Lifesaving Association endures.
The Flathead County and North Valley associations each have roughly 40 members, all volunteers. They help make up a proud tradition of emergency response in Flathead County, an area that encompasses 5,256 square miles, including 158 square miles of water, in addition to surrounding areas. No one is charged for being rescued by any of the resources, and Flathead County covers the initial costs to maintain its equipment and pay for the one full-time coordinator through a relatively small mill levy.
The search and rescue associations frequently work alongside resources such as Two Bear Air and the ALERT air ambulance, which are rooted in similar proud traditions. Kalispell General Hospital, which later became Kalispell Regional Healthcare, formed the air ambulance program in 1975 in response to persistent medical emergencies in Northwest Montana’s wilds, which made it difficult to respond on the ground. It was only the second air ambulance program in the nation when it was founded, and today ALERT has flown more than 17,522 emergency medical missions and directly saved 1,504 lives, according to the hospital.
This summer the hospital is debuting its Bell 407 GXP, a brand-new helicopter that will become the primary air ambulance, replacing the legacy Bell 407 that came online in 1999 and will now serve as a backup resource. The new helicopter, which is scheduled to go online in mid-July, was made possible thanks to a $4 million loan from an anonymous donor. The hospital has pledged to pay back the individual and is actively fundraising, according to KRH Foundation president Tagen Vine.
“He’s seen the 40-plus years of community support for the program and the importance that this service provides the region, and he wanted to help us,” Vine said.
Two Bear Air has become a vital local resource born in an uncommon spirit of service. Based in Whitefish and founded in 2012, local philanthropist Mike Goguen supports all of the costs of the frequently-used helicopter, which is outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment.
“No one in the country has anything like that, and it’s free to us,” Pat Walsh said of Two Bear Air.
As Walsh and members of ALERT and the search and rescue associations describe it, the Flathead Valley boasts a strong sense of teamwork in the face of sizable challenges and oftentimes overwhelming calls for help.
The FBI newsletter from decades ago put it another way.
“The 17 men, who met together a few hours after a little boy was buried, were not guided by sentiment. There was no thought of glory, praise, or reward. They were bound by mutual determination.”
It concluded, “Perhaps no one thought of it at the time or since, but the Flathead Rescue Association is the valley’s living example of the Golden Rule. It was impossible to fail.”