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Dog alerted snowmachiners to injured man who survived frigid night outside

Sean Doogan
Otis Orth recounts spending more than a day lying on the ground after wrecking his snowmachine. He said his dog, a golden retriever named Amber, kept him warm during his ordeal and even alerted passing snowmachiners to her owner's plight. March 4, 2014 Tara Young photo

When two snowmachiners found 52-year-old Otis Orth near Jake Lake -- not far from Petersville Road, west of Talkeetna and the Parks Highway -- on Monday afternoon, the Trapper Creek man was in bad shape. He had just spent a day and a half lying on the ice, unable to move after being thrown from his snowmachine while making a trip to bring supplies to his homestead. Orth's survival, and the very presence of the two men that found him, are both likely due not to fancy electronic search-and-rescue gear, but the loyalty of a 15-month-old golden retriever named Amber.

Amber, who was with Orth when he wrecked, had run onto the area's main trail and alerted passing snowmachiners of Orth's plight. The Alaska State Troopers said the men lured to Orth by the dog -- Tom Taylor, 68, of Trapper Creek, and his brother, Maynard Taylor -- helped keep the injured man warm until he could be airlifted to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage for treatment. Amber is being cared for by a family friend. Orth remains in a hospital bed, awaiting spinal surgery to fuse three vertebrae on Wednesday. He may see some toes on his left foot amputated later this week due to frostbite he suffered during his ordeal.

Lying in bed with his neck in a brace, Orth recounted how his dog never strayed far from his side while he lay immobile on the ice for more than 32 hours.

"She never left me for more than 20 yards that whole time, she just kept coming back," Orth said.

It was a sunny Sunday morning when Orth left his homestead, off Petersville Road in Trapper Creek, about 116 miles north of Anchorage. Orth said he was going to go to town to get supplies. He rode his snowmachine on the icy trail from his home toward the roadway. But an unseen dip in the trail soon sent the 52-year old -- and the dog who had been riding one the machine with him -- flying through the air.

"I tried to take a shortcut and ran into a hollow snow drift and that kind of kicked the back end of the snowmachine forward, and I went over the handlebars and slid for about 30 or 40 feet on my face and back," Orth said at Providence Tuesday morning. "It was kind of happening in slow motion, and I was thinking, 'This has got to stop pretty soon.' And when it did stop, Amber came running over to me. I couldn't move but I could talk to her, and she was licking my face."

After rolling himself onto his back, Orth took stock of his injuries. Something was wrong with his arms and legs, his face was cut and bleeding from being scraped on the ice, and his shoulders had separated. Orth said he didn't panic but wasn't sure what he could do to help himself. Amber, his rambunctious young golden retriever, did know what to do, whether by instinct or loyalty.

"About two hours later it was dark, and so my dog laid down by my right side with her head across my stomach," Orth said. "And that’s the way we were all night."

Orth said the temperatures in the area dipped into the low single digits overnight, but the warmth from his dog helped him survive to see the sun rise again Monday morning.

"I could feel a little heat coming from her body on my right arm and across my body," Orth said.

The next day, Orth again took stock of his predicament. After spending almost 24 hours on the ice, Orth said he had begun to sink in -- creating a body-sized depression about 8-10 inches deep. Orth said he didn’t think he would survive another night.

Still unable to move his arms or legs enough to move himself, Orth said he watched with worry as a raven came ever closer.

"He was doing the raven dance by my head and I was worried about my eyes," Orth said.

But again, Amber knew what to do -- running the bird off, but never straying too far from her human friend.

After a few more hours, Orth said he could hear snowmachines getting closer.

"I told her, 'Go get them,'" Orth said, even promising Amber the snowmachiners would give her a ride -- anything to get her excited enough to run toward the sounds.

Taylor said he and his brother were riding together on a snowmachine at about 1 o'clock Monday afternoon in the Jake Lake area. The two men had decided to extend their weekend trip to their cabin on Peters Creek, so that they could avoid the weekend traffic. They soon saw a lone snowmachine, sitting upright about 200 feet off the main trail. Taylor said, at first, he didn’t think anything was amiss. Snowmachines are a common sight along area trails, and Taylor said he figured its rider was simply in the bushes, using the bathroom, or nearby. Taylor said his own snowmachine was low on fuel and he didn’t want to stop.

"Then, this dog came after us and I thought, 'Oh, I don’t want the dog trailing us,' so I sped up," Taylor said. "But the dog stayed with us and kept barking."

When Taylor slowed down, the dog ran back and sat down about 100 feet from the snowmachine Taylor spotted alongside the trail. Returning to where the dog was lying down, and discovered Orth, on his back in the snow and ice.

"I said, 'You OK?'" Taylor said. Taylor said Orth asked what time it was and told him that he had been lying there for more than a day.

"This is a pretty tough guy to survive that night," Taylor said. "When we got up in the morning it was two below and he wasn’t wearing a lot of gear. I was amazed."

Taylor said he and his brother helped keep Orth warm until help arrived. When a LifeMed Alaska helicopter flew to the scene, Taylor put a leash on Amber and tried to move away from the landing zone, but Taylor said the dog didn't want to abandon her owner.

"She didn't want to leave his side," Taylor said.

Orth said he got Amber as a birthday present from a friend in December. Orth said Amber had come from a home that had just had a baby, and had been spending all her time outside in a kennel, and was skinny and hungry when he got her. Orth said he rescued Amber, but he now realizes that the dog rescued him right back.

"She sleeps with me most of the time anyways at the foot of the bed," Orth said. "But I might have to let her snuggle up a little closer to me now."

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com