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Trapper Creek man says dog saved his life after snowmachine crash

Devin Kelly
Otis Orth's golden retriever, Amber, and Trooper Lucas Hegg. Amber helped keep Orth warm overnight after he crashed his snowmachine near Trapper Creek on Sunday. Amber also alerted other riders to Orth's situation. Orth was rescued Monday afternoon.
Alaska State Troopers
Otis Orth is being treated at Providence Alaska Medical Center on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Orth was injured in a snowmachine crash in the Trapper Creek area. After spending a night in the cold, his golden retriever, Amber, alerted passing snowmachiners of Orth's whereabouts.
Marc Lester
Otis Orth's toes show the effects of frostbite. Orth is being treated at Providence Alaska Medical Center on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Orth was injured in a snowmachine crash in the Trapper Creek area. After spending a night in the cold, his golden retriever, Amber, alerted passing snowmachiners of Orth's whereabouts.
Marc Lester

It was midnight, well below freezing, and Otis Orth was lying on his back on the icy ground off a forest trail.

He couldn't move. A snowmachine crash Sunday afternoon west of the Mat-Su Borough community of Trapper Creek left him with a neck injury and dislocated limbs. For hours, he lay there waiting for help, moving his legs and feet to keep warm. As temperatures dropped to nine degrees, hypothermia took hold.

But he wasn't alone. His dog, Amber, a 2-year-old golden retriever lay next to him with her head and paws over his stomach, keeping him from losing further body heat. He forced himself to stay awake. The next day, it was Amber who alerted passing snowmachiners that Orth needed help.

If not for her, the 52-year-old Trapper Creek resident said Tuesday, he wouldn't be alive.

"I owe that dog my life," Orth said from his hospital bed at Providence Alaska Medical Center. "If I had stayed out there one more night I wouldn't have made it."

What became a dramatic rescue after a night spent in the cold started out Sunday afternoon as a trip to the grocery store. Orth, whose livelihood comes from seasonal commercial fishing and carpentry, climbed onto his snowmachine, preparing to set out for food and gas. He had spent the day with friends, and by that point, he said, he'd had several beers.

Orth lives in a cabin in the Jake Lake area, west of the Trapper Creek. Whenever he travels, he takes his dog Amber with him. She was a rescue dog, and he became her owner about a year ago. He's taken her fishing, four-wheeling and up in a helicopter.

About 2 p.m. Sunday, he was riding his snowmachine near Mile 17 of Petersville Road, standing up, with Amber between his legs. He was cutting across a pair of trails doing 35 mph about three-quarters of a mile away from his cabin when, suddenly, the snowmachine hit a snow berm with a hollow center. The machine fell through and see-sawed violently, tossing Orth over the handlebars.

He fell off the his left side and slid across the hard-packed snow. It was like hitting concrete. When he came to a stop, he lay with his left arm out behind him.

He managed later to turn himself onto his back. He said he thought he heard his friends coming back for him, but they would have been about 100 yards away. The longer Orth lay there, the more the snow melted, sinking him out of view. No one else came by.

"It was just me and the dog," Orth said. Amber stayed by his side and snuggled against him as the temperature dropped. He tried to continuously move his legs, but about midnight, he said he lost feeling.

When daylight returned, he yelled for help every 10 to 15 minutes and again was thankful to have Amber nearby when a raven stopped to take a look at his predicament.

"That raven landed there and started to do a little walk about my head and shoulders," Orth said. "I got her to run him off. I know how they are. They like to poke out eyeballs the first chance they get, if they think you're dead. When you can't move much, but just holler at them, I don't think that's much of a defense."

Not until about 1:30 p.m. on Monday did Orth hear the sound of approaching snowmachines.

He got Amber excited: "Go see what they're doing." The dog went off and Orth heard her bark. The snowmachines stopped.

A little bit later, one of the riders, 68-year-old Tom Taylor of Trapper Creek, reported to Alaska State Troopers that a rescue was underway. Help began to flood in -- other Trapper Creek cabin owners rushed out with a generator and a hair dryer, to keep him warm in his wet clothes. Troopers, LifeMed, EMS and a Trapper Creek ambulance with off-road rescue equipment were on the scene by about 3:40 p.m. to find Orth conscious, breathing and alert, but unable to move.

About 26 hours after he first crashed, a LifeMed helicopter took Orth to Providence Alaska Medical Center. He injured his neck, dislocated his arms and frostbite turned his left foot purple. He'll likely lose several toes.

But he wonders how much worse it could have been, if not for Amber.

"She probably saved whatever foot I'm going to have," he said, grimly.

After Orth was rescued, Amber was left with one of his acquaintances in Trapper Creek. But they wouldn't be apart for long -- on Tuesday afternoon, Amber was on her way to the hospital to be reunited with him.

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.

 


By DEVIN KELLY
dkelly@adn.com