John Rachor was up in the Cascade Range with his grandkids last weekend getting a Christmas tree when he read in the newspaper that...
GRANTS PASS, Ore. – John Rachor was up in the Cascade Range with his grandkids last weekend getting a Christmas tree when he read in the newspaper that a San Francisco family had disappeared while headed to the coast for a night in a lodge along the Rogue River.
A longtime pilot and owner of eight Burger King restaurants who regularly flies his helicopter over the rugged Rogue River Canyon, he got a hunch that James and Kati Kim and their two young daughters had made an all-too-common mistake and taken the Bear Camp Road as a shortcut in winter, when it can be blocked by snow.
A one-lane blacktop logging road through the Siskiyou National Forest, Bear Camp Road is regularly used in summer by rafters on the Rogue River to shuttle their vehicles, and in winter by hunters, cross-country skiers and families hunting Christmas trees.
When people head west from Galice to Agness get to a fork near the road’s summit, many mistakenly take the right fork into a warren of old logging roads.
Ever since a Montana camper salesman got stuck in the snow driving from Gold Beach to Grants Pass over Bear Camp Road in 1994 and was found starved to death in the spring, Rachor has flown over the road whenever he visited his vacation home in the tiny community of Agness, where the Illinois River joins the Rogue.
“On Sunday I went out looking for them,” Rachor said from his home in Central Point on Thursday. “I did see suspicious tire tracks Sunday that went down that road. I couldn’t ever see where they came back.
He got low on fuel Sunday, returned to Medford and decided to fly again on Monday to the Bear Camp Road area.
“I went out in the same general area,” he said. “I just started hovering over all those roads. There must be 50 miles in that road system. There were a lot of tracks on the roads, but they were all bear tracks. I spotted one set of tracks that were human tracks. They’re longer and narrower. I hovered over them to verify they were human tracks.”
Three helicopters hired by the Kim family were working the area, too, said Joseph Rice, operations manager for Carson Helicopters Services Inc. They had been working their way south since Friday looking at roads from Interstate 5 to the coast, where the Kims were headed.
After a cell phone company discovered that a text message had pinged off a tower near Glendale and hit one of the Kims’ cell phones somewhere to the west, they and Josephine County Search and Rescue had been working the Bear Camp Road area, said Rice.
Josephine County Search and Rescue had a person on the ground in the same area Sunday, but that searcher did not come across the Kims, said coordinator Sara Rubrecht.
On Monday, after a pair of searchers on ATVs reached the tracks left Saturday by James Kim when he walked out for help, Rachor said he followed them down the road several miles.
“I spotted her waving the umbrella and running around the road” next to their silver Saab station wagon, Rachor said.
Someone had stamped out “SOS” and “Out of gas” in the snow.
Rachor said he radioed in her position.
Within minutes, Rice said, the three Carson helicopters were there. One crew dropped food, and a smaller one was able to land and pick them up.
“She was doing a good job making herself seen, because she was down in some pretty tall timber,” Rachor said.
Rachor said he radioed her position to the search and rescue command post, and soon three helicopters hired by the Kim family for the search arrived. One dropped food and another landed and picked up the three.
“This was not an individual effort,” said Rice. “It was a team effort. Eleven guys (in four helicopters) were out there in a very coordinated group moving back and forth trying to do this.”
Low on fuel, Rachor headed back to Medford, but not before seeing where James Kim left the road and walked into the steep, dense tangle of trees, brush and rocks in the Big Windy Creek watershed.
From the air he could see Kim had walked past a road that would have taken him to Black Bar Lodge, a fishing lodge unoccupied for the winter about a mile away.
“He was on dirt for a long time — for miles,” Rachor said. “He was only on snow about 100 yards. Right where he hit the snow there were bear tracks. I don’t know which came first, the chicken or egg. I understand (Kati Kim) told someone they were terrified of bears. Whether he saw the bear tracks and decided to leave the road or whether he tried to head down a drainage to get to civilization, we just don’t know that.
“I’m glad it worked out as well as it did. I just wish it had worked out better.”