LAKE LOUISE – A 73-year-old woman is lucky to be alive thanks to the tracking efforts of Parks Canada’s search and rescue dog and handler over 22 kilometres of rough terrain and at least five river crossings in the backcountry of Banff National Park.
Leroy, a German shepherd, and his handler Logan Bennett were part of a search team called out to look for an overdue hiker on the Pipestone cross-country ski trails near Lake Louise at about 4 p.m. on Nov. 9.
After an epic 22-km tracking effort through tough terrain, blustering winds and driving snow for several hours, the woman was miraculously found alive and well at 1:30 a.m. about two kilometres from Skoki Lodge.
“She was happy to see us and I was so happy to see her,” said a relieved Bennett.
“She was amazingly strong and had been walking since 9 a.m. to 1:30 in the morning.”
The elderly Bow Valley woman was well prepared with adequate clothing and equipment, but had gone off route and become lost. She had no headlamp, but plenty of warm clothing, and was carrying bear spray.
When initially located, the woman indicated to her rescuers that she was OK to keep going to find shelter for the night.
An attempt to get to a nearby warden cabin was thwarted by the Pipestone River.
“We went to try and cross the river, but it was just too deep and we couldn’t get across,” said Bennett.
By 3:30 a.m., another visitor safety specialist who had been trailing about five kilometres behind had set up a tent.
“He had a fire going and it was wicked,” said Bennett. “We concentrated on making her comfortable and we put her in a sleeping bag to warm her up.”
Bennett and Leroy spent the night in the same tent with her.
“She really liked having Leroy there, I think,” he said. “Leroy just loved her and I hope he gave her some comfort.”
This was the longest rescue in terms of distance in Leroy’s young career as a search and rescue dog, beating out his previous record of a 14-km overnight search for a missing man in Lake Louise last summer.
A general duty police dog, Leroy is a sable-coloured German shepherd from the RCMP considered a valuable member of Parks Canada’s law enforcement and visitor safety search and rescue teams.
Leroy is particularly good at tracking, picking up and following trails that can include broken branches, bent grass or ground cover as well as particulate matter like hair and dead skin. He can also detect and a follow person’s scent carried in the air, leading the search team directly to the missing person.
“He can just do things we can’t. He can identify and track and consistently pursue it,” said Bennett. “He will go forever and never stop.”
In this most recent case, the search team picked up the trail of the 73-year-old woman at the Pipestone trailhead, followed an old trail for many kilometres before veering off up a mountainside.
One of the reasons Bennett and Leroy were able to pick up the woman’s trail so quickly is because she had a small dog. Unfortunately, the fate of the dog is unknown.
“We identified her trail pretty easily because she had a wee dog with her and one ski pole – and it was quite distinctive,” said Bennett.
In addition to Leroy and Logan, the Parks Canada search team consisted of three visitor safety specialists and four resource conservation staff.
They all encountered challenging conditions throughout the evening and into the early morning hours of the next day.
Travel was difficult in the dark and snow, and often included post-holing through 35 cms of snow while carrying heavy packs.
The team relied on Leroy to pick up the trail through flat open areas and after river crossings.
“Leroy was working really, really hard trying to keep us on the right track all the time,” said Bennett.
A braided section of the river proved to be one of the more challenging areas for the search.
“It was a large braided section with water probably four or five inches deep and the woman had started crossing through there, back and forth,” said Bennett.
“We started tracking her and I think we went through about five river crossings. The section was pretty windswept and not as much snow so we had to rely on Leroy a lot.”
At about the 12-kilometre mark, Leroy began following the woman’s tracks up a mountain in deep snow through a forest of thick trees.
“It was tough work to get through that, but Leroy kept working, kept working, kept working that area,” said Bennett, noting the woman’s tracks were difficult to keep on top of because she had turned around several times.
On one of Bennett’s passes of that area, Leroy was intent on pulling him in one direction.
“He was looking at me like I was stupid. We went in and we backtracked a bit to make sure we hadn’t missed something,” he said.
“When I came back to where he was paying a whole bunch of attention – the trail was really obscured, it had gone under a tree and around the tree – but on the other side, sure enough, her trail was right there.”
The gruelling conditions were getting more and more taxing. Bennett, who was lugging around 40 pounds of gear and a shotgun, was getting very tired. “But Leroy was happy as Larry and kept pursuing,” said Bennett.
Then about 20 kilometres into this epic search, rescuers heard calls for help.
“I stopped dead in my tracks and I said to the other specialist, ‘someone’s yelling’, and sure enough it was the person we were looking for,” said Bennett.
“I was pretty done, but she was still going. She is probably the strongest person I have ever met in my life.”
Bennett said he was incredibly proud of the rescue team’s efforts, and in particular the hard-working Leroy.
He said he was incredibly grateful and relieved for the positive outcome.
“To have a success story where they’re still alive…,” he said as words failed him.
“The realistic nature of that situation might not have gone very well much longer than when we caught up with her.”
One of the biggest advantages of having Leroy as part of the Parks Canada team is that he provides significant capability while requiring few resources to operate.
Together with Bennett, Leroy can do the work of a much larger human-only search team, which is particularly useful while working in avalanche terrain.
“We can put him and myself onto a slope and we just don’t have to put other people in positions that might be dangerous for them,” said Bennett.
“We can complete those tasks without exposing the rest of our team to avalanche danger.”
In fact, Bennett and Leroy were called to a report of an avalanche outside the Lake Louise ski area boundary last weekend.
“There was a report that a person might be buried in an avalanche out there. No one was – thank goodness,” he said. “We ended up going and clearing the scene.”
After extensive training at the police dog training centre, and completing the RCMP dog handler dog and handler course, Bennett was officially on the ground working with Leroy in November 2019.
“We are the only Parks Canada K9 team in Canada,” said Bennett.
Work includes tracking and searching for missing people, locating victims in avalanches, searching for and apprehending suspects and providing back-up to park wardens in high-risk law enforcement calls – just to name a few.
Occasionally, Bennett and Leroy assist with the local RCMP detachments.
One of the biggest call-outs involved a tireless search for a 23-year-old man presumed drowned in the North Saskatchewan River after he fell in on July 25, 2020. His body was recovered near Abraham Lake on Sept. 20 that year.
“Leroy just gives his best in everything he does; he never gives up,” said Bennett.