Beacon in the Blizzard: A Christmas Story
Wednesday, December 21, 2011 | Comments
By Leonard Koehnen
“Now Connie, I wouldn’t be concerned about working alone tonight,” the sheriff told his new dispatcher. “Last year we only had one 9-1-1 call on Christmas Eve. Tonight most people in Superior County are at home because of the big blizzard. It is going to be real slow.” With that promise, the sheriff left Connie alone in the 9-1-1 center.
Superior County is rural and adjoins the largest fresh water lake in North America. Most of the county is state or national forest land. Without the big blizzard, the county would be flooded with skiers and snowmobilers.
Connie made a pot of coffee in the dispatch center’s galley, broke the head off a snowman cookie, and munched as she went about her tasks. She put a scoop of dog food in a bowl for Drake, the county’s drug dog. In addition to working at the center, she was also dog sitting the golden lab because his handler was in Chicago for the holidays.
While phoning her family, there was the distinctive ring of a 9-1-1 call. As she answered the phone, Connie couldn’t help but think that this should be the one call tonight if the sheriff was right. “Superior County 9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
“{Long pause} I don’t know if I should be worried or not,” sighed an obviously distraught woman.
“What is the matter, Mrs. Johnson?” she asked reading the display and then hitting an F-10 key on the keyboard to populate the records screen.
“My husband and son went on a long snowmobile ride. It is something they do every Christmas Eve. My brother drives them to Pinewood, and they ride the national forest trails back home. They should have been home by 6 p.m.”
“Do they check in with you?”
“Yes, where they have cell service. They called me mid-morning from Chippewa Lookout and then at the Buck Snort tavern at noon. They were due to call me this afternoon from Inspiration Peak but didn’t.”
“What time did they call you from the Buck Snort?” Connie asked as she was typing away in the records fields.
“About noon. It was just before the blizzard turned bad.”
“Do they usually stop and eat there?”
“Yes, they do.”
“Okay, Mrs. Johnson, I am going to call our water and trails deputy, Ron Sorenson, and he will be contacting you. Stay by your phone and call me immediately if you hear anything about them.”
Connie brought up the paging screen on the radio console and clicked the 109 icon. Drake cocked his head back and forth at the mournful sound of the transmitting tones. She subtly nudged Drake away from the foot switch, stepped on it and then transmitted, “1-0-9, call dispatch regarding overdue snowmobilers.”
Deputy Sorenson checked in and advised his search plans. He asked her to page-out the Superior County Snowmobile Patrol. He would check out the Buck Snort tavern, and then if necessary, ride the trail east. The patrol would ride west from town, and they should meet around Inspiration Peak in about two and half hours.
As she updated the records screen, she listened to 109 coordinate with the snowmobile patrol members. The missing parties had left the tavern, so the search was on. The coffee cup was empty; she refilled it, and grabbed the other half of the snowman cookie with Drake following close by hoping for a fallen treat.
Deputy Sorenson had slow going from the Buck Snort tavern. The trail already had 10 inches of new-fallen lake-effect snow covering any snowmobile tracks.
About two hours later, the local phone rang. Connie answered it professionally, “Superior County Sheriff’s Department, how can I help you?”
“This is Isaiah Roberts with the FAA in Washington, D.C. Have you had any reports of a plane crash in your county?”
“No, we haven’t.”
“A Russian Copas satellite detected a downed aircraft alarm. We were just notified that a signal was received from a 406 MHz emergency location transmitter (ELT) beacon. The satellite reports the down location as; write this down, 46.7578N –89.5218W. Funny, the ELT unit is unregistered, meaning it must be brand new. It’s portable — something used in experimental or very old airplanes.” She typed the location into the 9-1-1 mapping system, and a map centered on a cross hair.
“What is it?”
“Those coordinates plot out to near Inspiration Peak. We have another event happening around there now!”
“Aircraft related?”
“No, overdue snowmobilers. We are in the middle of a blizzard up here!”
“Maybe they are helping out at the crash site? Anyway, I have asked the Coast Guard to dispatch a chopper to those coordinates. They will check in and coordinate with your communications center. My number in Washington is 202-555-9965 if you need to get back to me.”
The night had become a little more than what the sheriff predicted. She called him on his cell phone, updated 109 and the snowmobile patrol of the dual event in the same general area. It wasn’t long before the Coast Guard checked in.
The snow had slowed, and Deputy Sorenson saw the search beacon of the HH-65 Dolphin helicopter in the distance. Following that was a radio call in his helmet’s headset. “Superior 9-1-1 center, this is Coast Guard Traverse City Chopper. We are over the aviation alarm’s coordinates — receiving pings from the ELT unit.”
“109 to chopper, are there any other snowmobile lights in the area?”
“No 109. Just yours — really dark down there! We are activating the forward looking infrared camera (FLIR) system and looking for engine or body heat.”
“I am about 20 minutes out so I can help you from the ground.” Deputy Sorenson squeezed the throttle tight, hoping to shorten the interval to the scene. That didn’t last long as he had to ease up because of the twists, turns and roughness of the national forest trail.
“Dispatch to 109 and the other responders. I called the reporting party inquiring whether the lost parties might be carrying an aviation distress beacon. She reports they have no airplane. Therefore, I believe we have two separate events in the same general area. Possibly, the lost parties are at the crash site.”
“Traverse City chopper rogers that transmission. We are getting some faint heat blooms on our monitor. We are going to lower someone down to investigate.” Deputy Sorenson squeezed hard only to have to ease the throttle again.
The door opened on the chopper and Petty Officer Melissa Arnold snapped the winch cable to her safety belt. Hitting the ground, she sunk into the snow to her kneecaps. Shining her flashlight about she saw she was overlooking a ledge. Below her through the snow, she saw shiny metal from the wreckage. What else she saw sent a chill up her spine.
“Chopper, lift me up 5 feet and move me slightly to the west and down a 25-foot cliff.” The chopper crew responded and lowered her down to the shelf. “That’s good chopper.” She unsnapped the cable, shined the light over the second cliff and could not see the bottom.
“Is that where the airplane is?” she muttered. Another strange sight caught her eye — a brand new red and white climbing rope had been tied from the trees above. It hung down to the ledge and lay on the new fallen snow. Small human footprints covered the area. Where are all the kids now?
She pawed at the snow covering the shiny metal, revealing the bodies of a man and a boy broken atop their snowmobiles. Thank goodness, they landed on the ledge, she thought. Taking the pulse of each, she found them barely alive. The boy had to go up first. After the man, she would go down the big cliff for the airplane.
She transmitted, “Chopper, lower the rescue basket.” Just then, Deputy Sorenson came to the edge of the cliff. She yelled over the whap-whap-whap sound of the chopper hovering above, “Someone has put a brand new climbing rope on this cliff. Check it! If it is okay, come down. I need a hand.”
The knots were perfect around an Aspen tree. He repelled down the cliff to her side as the basket was lowered from the chopper. They carefully lifted the boy into the basket and belted him in. She transmitted on her portable, “Ready to lift!”
As the basket rose to the chopper, they began pawing the snow off the man. Clutched in his elbow’s curve was a package with Christmas wrapping paper still on one end. They set it aside and readied him for transport as the empty basket returned.
Once the man was raised, Petty Officer Arnold looked at the package. The tag said, “To Stan: Enjoy your new experimental airplane but be safe.” She opened the box, slid out the ELT, and shut off the alarm switch. Immediately the chopper transmitted, “Traverse City chopper reports ELT signal has been lost!”
She handed the box to the deputy and said, “I don’t know what has happened here but I am going to leave this for you to investigate. Obviously, there was no airplane crash. We’ve got to go to the hospital!” She snapped the cable to her safety belt ring and transmitted, “Chopper — raise me up!” and disappeared into the stark white glow of the beacon.
The first of the Superior Snowmobile Patrol members arrived at the cliff’s edge. One yelled below, “Ron you should see all the deer tracks up here. It looks like a sleigh with little kids was here since the blizzard ended!”
Just then, the sheriff’s radio channel broadcasted with a deep raspy voice, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

Leonard Koehnen is a St. Paul, Minn.-based consulting engineer in the field of wireless communications systems and facilities with more than 50 years of experience. He is also on the editorial advisory board of MissionCritical Communications. This story is the eighth in the “Santa Claus to the Rescue” series of Christmas short stories and poems honoring public-safety and public-service professionals who give up their Christmas holidays to serve the public. E-mail comments to

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