A woman’s best friend: San Juan forest has its first K-9 team

As a law-enforcement officer, Aleta Walker has patrolled public lands in a variety of ways. She’s worked on horseback, motorcycles, snowmobiles, ATVs, and in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

But until she came to work for the San Juan National Forest, she had never had the opportunity to patrol with a trained police dog.

Now, when Walker, the law-enforcement officer for the 600,000-acre Mancos-Dolores District, heads to work in her big white vehicle, there is always a companion in her back seat – Misha, a beautiful black-and-tan German shepherd.

A premature death

On this warm Sunday in July, Walker is taking a reporter on a ride-along. She already has several complaints to investigate: unregistered ATVs on one trail, unregistered boats at McPhee Reservoir, and resource damage by ATVs in the green hills northeast of Dolores. Misha, will of course be along for the ride.

Walker and Misha are the first K-9 unit on the San Juan National Forest and only the second such unit in the Forest Service’s Region II, which covers five states. The first K-9 officer is in Colorado Springs, the Southeast Zone of Region II. The Dolores District is in the Southwest Zone; there are plans to put another K-9 unit in the North Zone.

A police dog such as Misha, along with training, costs about $7,500.

Walker says the dog serves several purposes. “The biggest advantage for me is increased officer safety,” she says. “But the advantage you see the most is he’s such a good liaison to the public. People who wouldn’t normally come talk to you will do it when they see a dog.

“Misha is neat in that little kids can hug and pet him. He’s very sweet.”

But Misha has many other important functions. He is trained in tracking and narcotics detection. He can do search and rescue, although that isn’t one of his specialties. He can run down and detain fleeing criminals. Walker is careful to add that she wouldn’t use him for that purpose unless she was pursuing someone for a serious felony or violent crime.

In order to become a K-9 officer, Walker went to six weeks of training in Fort Collins earlier this year. That was where she met Misha, who is from Poland. Walker says shepherds’ blood lines are purer in Europe, where the animals have been bred to work, not for show.

Walker said she had her choice of several animals, but had a good feeling about him immediately. “The others were quality dogs, but they didn’t all have the personality I would want for a Forest Service police dog. The first time I saw Misha, I just knew he was the one.”

But he almost wasn’t the one. Three weeks into the academy training, Misha died.

A special bond

“He had a kidney disorder – it’s cleared up now – and they had to put a catheter in him at the vet’s,” Walker says. “Within five minutes of receiving the sedative, his breathing and heart stopped.”

Walker performed emergency breathing on the dog while the veterinarian did chest compressions and frantically struggled to find a vein so he could get an IV started. But Misha’s veins had collapsed, and the drugs had to be given subcutaneously.

“He was clinically dead,” she says. “The vet and I thought he was a goner.”

But at last he began breathing again. At first, he could move only his eyes. Then, gradually, he began to move his head and limbs. Soon he made a full recovery.

The experience cemented the love between Walker and her dog, now 18 months old. “We’re particularly bonded,” she says, laughing. “I had his snout in my mouth quite a while.

“We’re together 24/7. He’s my partner – I saved his life, but some day he could save mine.”

Hit with a Mag-Lite

That possibility is not quite as remote as it may sound. Though Walker rarely has unpleasant encounters on duty, she was assaulted once, while on assignment in Arizona. She and another law-enforcement officer had been called to a gathering of the Rainbow Family, a loosely connected group of people who have annual festivals on public lands, sometimes drawing 20,000 attendees.

Another patrol team, while making a traffic stop at the gathering, had found probable cause to search the vehicle for drugs. A crowd began to gather.

“It was late at night, and some of them had been drinking,” Walker recounts. “A huge crowd came, and other units were called. I was one of them.

“I got out and a guy snuck up and clocked me upside the head with a Mag-Lite (flashlight).”

The impact knocked her down, she says, but she didn’t pass out. “I had a big bump but I wasn’t hurt,” she says. “We apprehended him and took him to jail for felony assault on a federal officer. He’d been drinking.”

Walker says she’s been to one other Rainbow gathering, in Oregon, and there were few problems there. For that matter, there was little trouble at the one in Arizona, except for that single incident. “It depends on whom you’re dealing with, like any group,” she says. “Whenever people are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, you have problems. I’ve dealt with very few problems in my career where people were sober.”

In a decade in law enforcement, Walker’s experiences with outright hostile people have been few – so few she can remember each one, she says. Being whacked with a flashlight was the worst incident.

“Most people are cooperative and friendly,” she says. “Ninety-nine percent I deal with, including people I have to issue citations to, are fine. One to 2 percent are not.”

She’s had people swear at her a few times, she says, and on another occasion a group screamed anti-federal-government rhetoric at her.

But interestingly, she says, most angry offenders don’t deny their guilt. “They’re just infuriated that they’re being held accountable for their actions.”

An office in the forest

Walker, born in Alaska, worked for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division in Massachusetts, and later the U.S. Coast Guard as a medic. But she was always drawn to law enforcement.

Walker came to the Forest Service in 1995 as a law officer in Alaska, then worked in Wyoming for two years. She’s done details (temporary assignments) in a number of other Western states as well. While detailed to the San Juan National Forest in May 2003, she fell in love with the area and returned on permanent assignment last July.

“I knew after a couple days here that I wanted to stay,” she says. “I love Dolores and the San Juan National Forest. I like the people.”

Now, driving on a bumpy road past a moist green forest of ponderosa and Douglas fir, she waves a hand out the window of the vehicle and exclaims, “This is my office!”

That isn’t entirely true, of course. She has a regular office at the district ranger station in Dolores – a tidy room with a giant stuffed animal (a German shepherd, naturally) atop the file cabinet. But she and Misha feel more at home in the forest.

However, after a long drive on a narrow snaky road, through gentle rain falling on a dozen pastel shades of wildflowers, she finds something she doesn’t like about the forest. An illegal track, carved by ATVs, cuts across a green meadow. The signs forbidding off-road motorized use at the site have disappeared.

Walker notes the violation in her log book and says she will have someone come replace the signs – although in a sense they are unnecessary, because the area is clearly marked along the main road as being off-limits to cross-country motorized travel.

“Resource crime is our biggest issue, mostly due to ATVs and dirt bikes operating in closed areas,” Walker says.

She’s quick to add that most motorized users follow the law. “Ninety percent of OHV users I’ve been around are doing it responsibly,” she says. “Those 10 percent that cause resource damage or ride in closed areas ruin it for the others. I’m always urging OHV users who follow the regulations to report the ones that are committing violations.”

Plethora of problems

That’s far from the only problem on the San Juan, of course. Vandalism, littering, and illegal outfitting are also common. Poaching is “a huge problem,” she says. Illegal campfires during the fire ban are another frequent violation.

Walker relies on tips for much of her information about illegal activity. People call her in her office, on her cell phone, even at home. They flag her down as she passes them on the road. They tell her about “squatters” (people who make the forest their home), speeders, minors drinking alcohol.

“Underage consumption is a biggie,” Walker says. “Echo Basin, Chicken Creek, Transfer, McPhee, Boggy Draw, Sage Hen – those are the common sites. Not only do they drink, but then they get in their cars and drive.”

She has little patience for drunk drivers. Once, in Alaska, she caught an intoxicated man driving a truck, towing a boat. In the cab with him were a small child along with a loaded and chambered gun. “I got him on DUI, reckless endangerment of a child and weapons violations,” she says. “It’s unbelievable what some people will do.”

One complaint she commonly receives here is about unregistered OHVs and boats. Both have to be registered in Colorado, or, for visitors, in the state they come from. To use trails rather than just roads, OHVs also must have a trails registration.

“We give more tickets for unregistered OHVs than any other single violation,” Walker says.

It’s a similar story for boats, and this afternoon Walker wants to head to the McPhee boat ramp to check out the complaint of unregistered craft. First, however, she takes a five-minute break to let Misha out of the truck for a few training exercises.

With police dogs, training is never finished. Walker and Misha train every Tuesday night with four other K-9 officers: one each from the Cortez Police Department, Ignacio PD, Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office and San Miguel County SO.

Now, Walker puts Misha through some exercises designed to teach him to stay when told, even if she is crouching, hiding, or pursuing an assailant. He clearly doesn’t like to “stay,” but is obedient. She rewards him with a session of stick-fetching. Then it’s back in the truck.

En route to McPhee, Walker talks about another type of illegal activity problematic on the San Juan: theft or vandalism in archaeological sites. Walker’s mother was a professor of anthropology and archaeology at the University of Alaska, her father an anthropologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Walker grew up going to digs in Alaska and Australia. She takes violations of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act seriously.

“I was brought up to have a tremendous respect for indigenous cultures,” she says. “Protecting cultural resources is just as important as protecting natural resources.”

Walker says volunteer site stewards, who monitor ruins, have been a big help in protecting cultural sites. She also can use surveillance cameras or seismic monitoring at places where there are repeated problems.

A seismic alarm triggers a remote alarm when someone is walking in an area, Walker explains. When it’s late at night, she pays attention. “If that seismic alarm goes off at 2 a.m., I’m going to climb out of bed and grab my uniform and go check that out,” she says. “ARPA is one of my top priorities.”

Scary encounters

Traipsing around after looters at 2 a.m. might sound a little unnerving, but most of the scariest encounters Walker has had in the wild have been with animals, not humans.

In 1980, while still in college in Anchorage, she was chased by a protective mother moose with a calf as she crossed a meadow on her way to school. Moose may seem placid and peace-loving, but they can be quite dangerous. Walker ran for her life toward a house on the edge of the meadow.

With the moose hot on her heels, she burst through the unlocked door, startling an elderly man in boxer shorts sitting within. “Who are you?” he demanded, but when he heard her explanation, he said he’d put on some clothes and she could stay till the moose left.

Then there was the time Walker was sleeping in a car in Alaska when she woke to an apparent earthquake – only to discover it was a black bear shaking the vehicle.

Working as a law officer in Alaska, she and her partner once followed a game trail by mistake, rather than the foot path they thought they were on. They came around a bend and encountered an enormous black bear that rose on its hind legs. They drew their guns but weren’t sure they’d do much good if the bear charged.

Walker remembers her hand jerking of its own accord as she and her partner whispered about what to do. “If it was going to charge, it would have by now,” he finally said. They began backing away slowly. Even when the bear was out of sight, they kept on.

“We must have backed up for a quarter of a mile!” Walker laughs.

Saving two lives

Her most dramatic moment as a law officer, however, did not come when her own life was in danger, but when she saved someone else’s. In May 2002, a 44-year-old woman and her 10-year-old daughter were missing along the Wyoming-Colorado border. The two had set out on a three-day hike but had been missing a week, and hopes were fading that they’d be found alive.

But Walker, then with the Medicine Bow National Forest, took a friend and rode out on horseback to look for the pair in the Zirkel Wilderness. They found them, weak with hunger and exhaustion but uninjured. Walker was later featured in a Reader’s Digest article about the against-all-odds rescue.

“Saving someone’s life – that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve done,” Walker says.

An unhappy boater

Her task this afternoon isn’t quite as exciting. She parks on the boat ramp at McPhee and looks at craft entering or leaving the water to see if they bear the bright red Colorado registration sticker. When she spies a boat without such a sticker, she hails the owner.

Walker is a familiar sight at the boat ramp. She says she tries to spend a couple of hours there every weekend, looking for anything from unregistered boats to illegal bass-fishing tournaments (you have to have a permit) to children without life jackets or boats making big wakes near the ramp.

A man approaches her. He says he’s heard there was a party at Sage Hen the previous night and the revelers set a tree on fire. “That’s bad,” Walker says. “We could have had a forest fire out there.” She promises to check it out.

A surly-looking storm system is moving over the lake; boats are lining up to exit the water. Walker stops several out of-state owners to check their papers; in one case, she issues a citation for an unregistered craft. The boaters seem faintly irritated, but all are civil.

Then she spies a truck towing another boat that bears only the scraped-off remnants of a sticker. She approaches the man driving the truck; another man and a child are also in the cab.

She asks about his registration and he angrily says it’s current, but the sticker has just come off. Walker says he needs to replace it and asks to see his driver’s license. He explodes.

“F— you!” he yells.

“Sir, either you show me your driver’s license or you’re going to jail,” Walker says He rummages for the license and thrusts it at her., shouting all the while.

“This is f—ing b—s—!” he shouts. “F— you!”

Walker returns to the truck to write down his name and address. Suddenly he walks up to her door.

“Sir, please step away from the car,” she says firmly, as Misha watches alertly from the back seat. It is a tense moment, but he returns to his truck. More swear words float into the warm air hanging over the lake as he waits.

Finally Walker lets him go with a verbal warning and a promise that she will check his story about being registered. If he’s lying, he’ll get a citation in the mail.

“I told him not to come back with it that way or he’ll get a ticket, and if he behaves like that again, I’ll make it a mandatory,” she says. That means he would have to appear before the judge in federal court in Durango.

Walker says this encounter ups the number of really unpleasant people she’s dealt with during her Forest Service career to four. “I felt bad for that child, having to hear that,” she says. “But it’s part of my job to be able to deal with that guy. So he yells at me, so what? I can’t take it personally. But if he gets physical, that dog is coming out of the car.”

She shrugs the incident off. Later, however, she will hear from a bystander that many of the onlookers were offended by the man’s behavior and amazed that she kept calling him “sir.”

A dog with a calling

It’s five o’clock. Walker has been at the lake for an hour. It’s time for her to drop off her passenger and head to the office for follow-up on other cases.

Her day is far from over. Later that night she will go to Sage Hen to check out the man’s tip; she will find a cottonwood cut down and burned in an illegal bonfire, but no clues as to the perpetrators. As is often the case with violations on public lands, she’ll need a tip if she’s going to apprehend anyone.

“Not everybody can do this job,” she says. “You have to have a thick skin and a lot of patience. But I love it here. Law enforcement is my calling.”

In the back seat of the vehicle, Misha watches contentedly. Brought back from the edge of death, he too has found his calling. And he will be there for her at Sage Hen – and any place else she goes.

From August 2004.