Photo by Ann McCreary Vikki and Ottis Buzzard at their Balky Hill home: headed for Alaska’s open spaces.

Photo by Ann McCreary
Vikki and Ottis Buzzard at their Balky Hill home: headed for Alaska’s open spaces.

Ottis and Vikki Buzzard depart the Methow Valley for their next adventure

By Ann McCreary

When a Search and Rescue team was needed to travel miles into the rugged backcountry of the Cascade Mountains to rescue someone, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers referred to the mission as “an Ottis hike.”

He means Ottis Buzzard who, with his wife Vikki Buzzard, have been the go-to team for search and rescue work in the mountains, on snow or in whitewater.

“They can just go at an incredible pace,” Rogers said. “There were no limitations to those two. We’d call them because we knew they could handle it all.”

Between them, Ottis and Vikki Buzzard have given more than 40 years of service in search and rescue, firefighting, emergency and wilderness medicine, and law enforcement in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County.

“They are dedicated. Everything about what they did was for the community,” said Rogers.

“They did so many different things over the years. When we had to recover bodies off the mountains, it was Vikki and Ottis who would fly in and load them into the chopper,” Rogers said.

The Buzzards are leaving the Methow Valley this week to move to Alaska, leaving behind a void that coworkers say will be hard to fill.

When the Buzzards weren’t heading into the remote backcountry on rescues, they were heading there for recreation –  climbing, hiking, skiing, snowmobiling, boating, fishing, and (in Ottis’ case) hunting.

Their passion for adventure and the outdoors is a big part of the attraction that Alaska holds for them. That, and plans for a honeymoon that got delayed for about 16 years.

“When we got married 16 years ago we talked about moving up there … It was our vision to drive the ALCAN [Alaska] Highway,” Vikki said in an interview last week. “It just wasn’t the right time. The years kind of clicked along.”

Now, with their Balky Hill home for sale and household belongings on a barge headed to Alaska, the Buzzards plan to spend five days driving to Anchorage with their dog after leaving the valley on Thursday.

“We’re finally going to do our honeymoon,” Vikki said.

Valley veterans

Ottis is leaving a job with the Okanogan County Sheriff’s office, where he was a deputy for the past five years, and was the Search and Rescue coordinator since 2013.

A fifth-generation Methow Valley native, Buzzard joined Okanogan County Fire District 6 as a volunteer in high school, racking up 2,400 community service hours by the time he graduated.

He worked for his family excavating business while continuing to volunteer with the fire district, moving up through the ranks to become a paid division chief.

He was trained as an emergency medical technician (EMT) –  by Vikki –  in 1999, and joined the sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team that same year. In 2010, he began law enforcement training and was hired as an Okanogan County sheriff’s deputy in 2011.

Vikki moved to the valley with her father, Ron Perrow, when she was young. In 1992 she began volunteering as an EMT for Aero Methow Rescue Service and joined the sheriff’s Search and Rescue team as a volunteer.

She was trained as a paramedic at Oregon Health Sciences University and was hired at Aero Methow in 1996, where she has worked as operations manager and as liaison for the Methow Valley to sheriff’s Search and Rescue.

A dog lover, Vikki helped create a Search and Rescue canine team, working with volunteers to train dogs for wilderness and avalanche rescue work.

Seven years ago, she joined the sheriff’s Special Response Team (SWAT) as the team medic. That meant that Vikki has been an equal participant in all the team’s activities.

“I loved it, absolutely loved it,” Vikki said. “It’s a great group of guys, a lot of camaraderie.”

Rogers recalled a night several years ago when the team was heading up Goat Peak, in the dark, to an illegal marijuana grow site.

“It’s steep and it was a long way in. It took us hours,” Rogers said. “While we were hiking up, she was running from the front to the back of the line, checking on us, asking how we were doing.” Deputies struggled to conceal how winded they were while Vikki dashed effortlessly up and down the trail, Rogers said.

Cindy Button, Aero Methow’s director of services, remembered the relief she felt when she hired Vikki as a paramedic.

“I was the only paramedic in the valley from 1984 to 1996. The first night she was on call, was the first night I’d slept in years,” Button said.

“We need an army to replace her. She has been an integral part of everything that Aero Methow is today,” Button said.

Memorable rescues

As a sheriff’s deputy, Dave Rodriguez, now the county coroner, coordinated Search and Rescue until he turned the job over to Ottis Buzzard in 2013.

“As coordinator, it was comforting to know they were there — they were a great team,” Rodriguez said. “When we had to roll out resources [on a rescue], depending on what and where –  it almost always meant calling Ottis and Vikki.”

Rodriguez said one of his favorite “Ottis stories” involved a young woman who had broken her ankle in a boulder field off a trail near Rainy Pass. An account by the sheriff of the 2013 incident said the Search and Rescue team hiked in as it was getting dark, and Vikki helped treat the woman’s injuries.

Because of the big boulders, rescuers found it difficult to carry a litter over the uneven terrain.

“So guess what Ottis did. He put this woman on his back and hiked her out — hopping from boulder to boulder. And she’s a normal sized woman, she’s not a child,” Rodriguez said.

“When he got out to the trail he said to her, ‘I’m OK if you’re OK,’ so he hiked her out the rest of the way out on his back. The guy is a machine, when it comes to his fitness and the way he operates out in the woods,” Rodriguez said.

“The only thing I couldn’t sign him up for was the scuba rescue team. I gave him a pass on that,” Rodriguez said.

With hundreds of rescues behind them, “for me they’ve all pretty much run together,” Ottis said.

“The thing that stands out with every one is how hard people who are volunteering their time are willing to work, and how hard the work can be,” he said. “You’ve got to be willing to do it any time, day or night, any season, any weather.”

“Rescue is so dynamic,” Vikki said. “The safest thing — is to get in and get the job done and get out. The longer you stay in there, the more at risk you are.”

The most challenging part of rescues, Ottis said, “is the medical aspect.” An example involved a man who had a heart attack while he was mining near the remote Chancellor mine area –  about 15 miles from Harts Pass.

The Search and Rescue team headed up Harts Pass and drove on a double track road until they reached the drainage where the man and his friends were mining. There were thunderstorms, so the rescue team couldn’t ask for a helicopter to help evacuate the man, who was at the bottom of a creek drainage, about 700 feet below the road.

The team fixed three rope systems to descend the steep slope to the creek, and Vikki began administering medical aid to the man, continuing to work on him as the team carefully maneuvered the man back up the slope, Ottis said.

They transported the man back to Harts Pass, where an Aero Methow ambulance met them. Vikki rode with the victim, continuing to treat him, until he arrived at the hospital in Wenatchee. The incident took almost 12 hours from the call for help to arrival at the hospital, and the man survived.

“It would be hard to get much further from a hospital in Washington state,” Ottis said.

Going viral
Vikki Buzzard, left, and Ottis Buzzard of the county’s Swiftwater Rescue Team retrieved Jessie from the back of a truck that had rolled into the Chewuch River in Winthrop on Saturday (May 31). Photo by Don Nelson

Photo by Don Nelson
Vikki Buzzard, left, and Ottis Buzzard of the county’s Swiftwater Rescue Team retrieved Jessie (the dog) from the back of a truck that had rolled into the Chewuch River in Winthrop on Saturday (May 31, 2014).

For Vikki, one of the most memorable rescues occurred two years ago when she and Ottis saved a dog from the back of a pickup truck that had rolled into the Chewuch River in downtown Winthrop during high water. (See story here)

The truck had slipped into the river from a parking lot behind the Tenderfoot store and was carried under the Highway 20 bridge until it became lodged on a rock just below the bridge, with a dog named Jessie in the bed of the truck.

Members of the sheriff’s swiftwater rescue team responded, and with the aid of guidelines held by team members, Vikki and Ottis maneuvered an inflatable raft to the truck.

Jessie’s owner had warned Vikki that the dog might bite out of nervousness.  “I said, ‘That’s OK, I’m willing to take a dog bite,’” Vikki said.

The incident attracted scores of spectators who stood on the bridge and along the river. Vikki said she felt a moment of “stage fright” when she glanced up at the crowd, “seeing everyone on their cell phones” taking photos and videos as she and Ottis approached the truck on the raft.

Vikki couldn’t persuade the dog, which was cowering at the front of the truck bed, to come to her. So she climbed carefully into the back of the truck. Speaking gently to the frightened dog, Vikki picked her up and felt the dog, “glue herself against me.”

As she leaned over the back of the truck to pass the dog to Ottis in the raft, Vikki said, “Please don’t drop this dog.” He didn’t, and the dog was safely brought to shore and reunited with her owner.

“For me that was very rewarding. She [Jessie] was in a situation where it took people with swift water training,” Vikki said. Video of the rescue was posted on the Internet and was seen by people around the world.

Leaving the ‘net’

In Alaska, Ottis will work for the Wasilla police department, beginning June 13. Vikki is pursuing a position as a flight medic out of Anchorage, which is about 45 miles away from Wasilla.

She is also working toward completing her private pilot’s license, and is looking forward to exploring Alaska with Ottis by floatplane.

Leaving the Methow Valley isn’t easy, but beginning a new life in Alaska is exciting, the couple said.

“That big country is what attracts us,” said Ottis. “I love the mountains here and knowing every square inch of the place. It’s hard to leave a place that is so comfortable. I tell people we work with that you should do something that scares you every day. We are going to leave behind the safety net,” he said.

“This is a special place,” Vikki said. “We’ve had so much great support and great experiences —  whether you’re visiting with people at a coffee shop or spending all night with the team on a rescue.

“For me, I’m spreading my wings and doing something a little scary. But that’s how you grow.”