Finding Life at Camp of Death

Finding Life at Camp of Death

To try and add veracity to our Camp of Death (COD) location premise, Donner Summit Historical Society[1] offered a connection to John Grebenkemper, PhD and member of the Institute for Canine Forensics[2]. John joined ICF in 2007 and certified his first dog in less than a year. One area of special interest is using the canine scent detection to locate western emigrant graves. John’s current dog, Kayle, is his second certified historical human remains detection dog. He has worked numerous HHRD projects with ICF.

John and Kayle. Photo Credit: John Grebenkemper

Before joining ICF, John spent 40 years working in the field of physics and engineering research. He received a PhD from Stanford University, has published more than 20 technical papers, and received 8 U.S. patents.

On Saturday, October 31st – All Hallow’s Day and a rare blue moon – John and Kayle met Tim and Bob plus fellow expedition teammate Jennifer Hemmen, expedition lead photographer, Keith Sutter, ultrarunning friend Scott Vosburg and two members of Donner Summit Historical Society, Board Member Bill Oudegeest and Board Advisor Art Clark nearby the purported COD location deep within the North Fork of the American River canyons.

John and Kayle had offered to conduct a preliminary search for human remains in the vicinity of our believed location of the COD. After introductions and a brief discussion of the day’s protocols and agenda, we were off. Scott led the team off the dirt road almost immediately and into the brush and steep embankment of the west embankment of Burnett Canyon. This area, now managed by Tahoe National Forest has been heavily forested over the years as well as exposed to several large fires. Thus, besides the terrain and eastward views of Sawtooth Ridge, little else would have looked the same at the time of the Forlorn Hope. This makes our collective job more challenging. 

The disruption from logging and fires was evident everywhere. Scorched trees, burned stumps, relatively young vegetation, downed trees strewn all over the hillside. A “Burnett Canyon Trail” appears on a couple of early iterations of USGS topo maps but for the most part, has been erased from maps – and after closely examining the entire area several times – from the earth. Faint traces of old logging roads come and go but have long since been covered by forest debris and crisscrossed with game trails. 

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter

Speaking of game, we have noted on several excursions to this area the lack of apparent fauna. If you seek serenity through beautiful landscape and silence, this is the place to be. Besides a rare cawing of a crow, we saw or heard no animals. Not a chipmunk, squirrel, woodpecker, hawk, deer or bear. We did see a preponderance of fresh bear droppings, which gave us some encouragement we weren’t completely alone. 

After 40 minutes we arrived at the area where we believe was the best option for the possible COD location. We had two other search areas also in mind but decided to start with our best shot. After some preliminary sniffing about and, as all dogs do, finding “snacks” thanks to the bear, John put Kayle to work. The rest of us watched with great interest as she slowly and methodically went over the ground, nose down, occasionally stopping and sniffing but mostly showing little interest. John and Kayle were amongst the manzanita that had grown back as part of the forest rejuvenation cycle. 

John approached us after Kayle had thoroughly scoured the area and provided us with a short explanation of Kayle’s process and what, if anything she had found. Much to our surprise and delight, John shared that Kayle had “alerted” – the process of when Kayle detects the odor of one of the over 400 compounds present in decaying human bones – by sitting and remaining still. Kayle had alerted three times, in close proximity to one another, only a few yards from the place in which we’d believed the Forlorn Hope had set camp. 

Kayle at work near Camp of Death. Photo Credit: Bob Crowley

Text Box: Kayle at work near Camp of Death. Photo Credit: Bob CrowleyJohn said he’d rest Kayle and then have her return to the area and see if she alerts in the same places again, providing further confirmation. After some healthy snacks and water Kayle was back at it and when finished John confirmed she had indeed alerted a second time. John recorded each location with his high-powered gps device which is accurate within ½ meter. 

John reported, “These [alerts] are of our lowest acceptable quality – she [Kayle] had scent but couldn’t precisely locate it. She also had a fourth alert about three meters further west, but didn’t hold the alert. We normally don’t count those as formal alerts, but as an indication that she had scent in the area.”

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter

Three alerts at Proposed Camp of Death Site. Photo Credit: John Grebenkemper

We then proceed to possible sites two and three – one down river and the other upstream. No alerts were recorded at either site. We headed back to the cars to conclude our hunt for the day. Back at the vehicles John summarized the findings as, “’encouraging’ because alerts are not frequent, but cautioned that the type of alerts were preliminary and that dog do make mistakes! I’d like to bring a few more dogs back to the site to see if they alert at site one, which if so, would give us a very strong probably of human remains.” 

View looking east over Burnett Canyon. Photo Credit: Bob Crowley

We covid-19 air high fived and departed, satisfied that our COD location was at least within the realm of possibilities and that our methodologies combining extensive field and written research may be sound.

Upon reflection, it was uplifting to have returned to this hallowed ground – on All Hallow’s Day – to pay respect to these brave pioneers who risked everything for those they love. Our work continues as our interest intensifies. We found life at the Camp of Death.

Text Box: Without a family, man alone in the world, trembles in the cold. 
-- Andre Maurois

[1] Donner Summit Historical Society

[2] Institute for Canine Forensics

Leave a Reply