Idaho couple helps recover drowning victims for mourning families

Gene and Sandy RalstonGene and Sandy Ralston on Giauque Lake, Northwest Territories. Jaron McKay photo, environmental consultants from Idaho, have been recovering bodies from lakes and rivers across North America — intervening when authorities can't or won't — for 29 years.

"We look beyond that morbid part of it, the gooey part of it," Gene told the Globe and Mail. "We look way beyond that, to what it means to the family."

In 1983, the couple volunteered their jet-boat to help search for a suicide victim. Since then, the Ralstons have recovered nearly 80 bodies — more that a dozen in Canada — simply because people asked them to.

They call their unique service a hobby. They don't get paid for what they do, only asking to be reimbursed for their travel expenses, reports South Dakota Public Broadcasting. They can rack up to 50,000 kilometres a year driving across North America in their 32-foot motor home.

On July 20th, the couple recovered the body of Jaxon Smith, whose Toyota Land Cruiser fell through the ice on Giauque Lake, northeast of Yellowknife, in 2007. The RCMP were unable to dive the 168 feet needed to reach his body. The Ralstons, who found Smith's body in 20 minutes, used a 46-pound underwater robot to bring his body to a more diveable depth of 88 feet.

[ Related: North needs better underwater search equipment, says widow ]

Smith's widow, Kelsey, wept at the sense of closure after five long years:

"It's a load off, knowing for 100 per cent certain that, yes, Jaxon is gone," she told the Globe and Mail, "and that there's going to be no chance he got out of the lake, is wandering around, forgot who he was, didn't know who he was, didn't know where he was, anything like that."

Last month, the Ralstons helped recover the body of Justin Lewis, 15, from Deerfield Lake, South Dakota. They also helped recover the body of Richard D. Herren, a fisherman who fell out of a boat 15 years ago in Flaming Gorge in Wyoming, using their side scan sonar.

The video below shows another side scan sonar at work.

"There's no feeling like being able to walk up to the boat ramp to tell mom and dad, widow, husband, whatever, a parent, that you're bringing their child home," Gene said. "When everyone else has given up."

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