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Crews pratice cold-water rescues on the Yellowstone River
Rescue training

Crews pratice cold-water rescues on the Yellowstone River

Make no mistake, it was cold. Damn cold.

So cold, in fact, that the droplets of water dripping from Jeff Guckenberger's dry suit as he climbed from the Yellowstone River on Tuesday morning quickly froze, clinging to his dive gear like little crystalline jewels.

“It's warmer in the water than out,” he said, smiling.

The Stillwater County Search and Rescue team spent the day Tuesday at Itch-kep-pe Park in Columbus doing ice water rescue training in the Yellowstone River.

Of the team's 22 volunteer members, 10 were there with two instructors learning to pull themselves and others from the river.

Typically, training of this sort is done in a pond or lake, where there's no current and there's something resembling a controlled environment, said Kim Little, the group's instructor.

However, for Stillwater County Search and Rescue, he decided they needed to train in the river.

“This is where they're going to have to do it in real life, so this is where we're going to train,” he said.

Little works for Rescue Tech International and spent Monday and Tuesday with the team — Monday mostly in the classroom, Tuesday on the river.

“Some of them were incredibly jacked about the whole thing,” said Crystal Arnold, the team's vice president.

They couldn't wait to get in the water. Guckenberger's enthusiasm waned some when he actually walked up to the edge of the river Tuesday morning.

“I had to psych myself up to get in,” he said.

But, he said, once he got into the water, it really was warmer than standing on the bank.

Little guessed the water temperature was between 35 and 40 degrees. On the bank, the air temperature was closer to 15.

It was important for the team to train on the river, Little said. Roughly 70 percent of the incidents the search-and-rescue team get called on involve water. Both the Stillwater and Yellowstone rivers cut through the county.

“Our team is real, real comfortable in the water,” Guckenberger said.

This spring, the team will be back on the Yellowstone to do swift-water rescue training. Because the team is all volunteer, the costs for training are reimbursed by the state. Stillwater County also has a mill levy that funds equipment and operations for the search and rescue team.

“We're lucky,” Arnold said.

So far this winter, the team hasn't had to perform a water rescue. In fact, the only incident in which they've been called was on the opening weekend of hunting when a hunter got lost in the hills above Columbus.

But Arnold figures they're probably due for some kind of water rescue. Last year, just weeks following their swift-water rescue training, they were called out to recover a body from the river.

Guckenberger hopes Tuesday's training doesn't lead to an actual rescue.

“We don't want to see people get hurt,” he said. “But we want to be there when they do.”

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

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