John Grebenkemper had been up since 4:30 a.m. when I spoke to him.
It was nearly 8 p.m., and he was relaxing in a hotel room chair in Julian, California. His dog, an 11-and-a-half-year-old border collie named Kayle, slumbered on the bed. They’d been waking at the crack of dawn all week, followed by long days out in the Southern California sun searching for Native American burial sites.
Today’s Moonshine Minutes combines canines, the scent of decomposition, and a whole lot of exciting history. I’m Alex Hoeft, news reporter for Moonshine Ink.
John Grebenkemper is a historic human remains detection canine handler. He and Kayle have spent the last 10 years seeking the scent of human decomposition for archaeological purposes. Rather, Kayle searches for the scent; Grebenkemper is along for the ride.
Their human remains detection work is all official through the Institute for Canine Forensics (or ICF), which is often called upon to detect historic gravesites — including the Donner Party, a famous group of pioneers migrating to California that was waylaid by snow and some of whom resorted to cannibalism to survive.
History buffs likely already know, but the Donner Party’s namesake, George Donner, never actually saw the piece of land on which the memorial statue to their experience sits, just beyond the eastern shore of Donner Lake. He and his family camped in Alder Creek Valley, about 8 miles east, during the infamous winter of 1846/47.
Much work has been put into finding exactly where Donner and his brother’s camps, along with an additional teamster camp, sat. Archaeological excavations, metal detectors, and ground-penetrating radar have had both successful and unsuccessful results.
Grebenkemper explained it: “Before I joined, ICF had actually done a project at Alder Creek for a professor Kelly Dixon at the University of Montana. That was in 2004 when she was looking for evidence of where the Donner camps were. They did find remnants of a camp, primarily from embers of fire that had been occupied for an extensive period of time … The dogs had also been up there and worked that area and identified the same spot where they identified the fire as also containing human remains.”
A dog on the hunt for the scent of human remains walks slowly and methodically, sniffing the ground carefully. Detection is realized when the dog sits or lies down on the spot, an “alert.” From there, the handler has his or her canine approach the spot a second time from a different angle to check for replication. This is done without direction, so as to allow the animal to use its own senses to make the discovery again. If the alert is two-for-two, a new dog will come in and offer confirmation.
Grebenkemper said, “I knew from the history there were potentially three camps [around Alder Creek]. The most Kelly Dixon’s group had found was one camp. So I went [in 2010] and, it was an amazing bit of luck, but I said I’m gonna go out this way … and a couple hours later, the dog alerted; I had a scent out here far from the traditional area of the camps.”
Kayle wasn’t yet certified at the time, but her finding was enough to pique Grebenkemper’s interest. He hailed other members of the ICF who quickly confirmed the human remains with their certified dogs. From 2010 to 2013, a dozen different dogs searched across 32 acres over 40 days. Ultimately, 80 different alerts were realized in addition to Dixon’s fire excavation in 2004.
However, though the dogs have spoken, nothing can be confirmed until an excavation takes place and objects are found.
ICF dogs are certified similarly to cadaver dogs involved with police work — the same scent of human decay, but at much weaker levels. Human bones are used during the training process, and when a dog sniffs one, a reward is immediately given.
There aren’t national standards for certification of a historic human remains detection canine, but the ICF has developed one internally, involving an outside evaluator. The dogs are pretty reliable at finding human burials; Grebenkemper said they’ve detected remains as old as 3,000 years.
“Like any detector, they’re not perfect, but the vast majority of the time they’re correct and it’s been verified by excavation.”
The full story, Dogs on the Hunt, is on our website at moonshineink.com. There, you can read more about John Grebenkemper, Kayle, and other spots they’ve alerted for human remains in the Donner Summit area, including Starved Camp — another Donner Party hot spot.
Keep your eyes on the prize and nose to the ground, Tahoe, as Kayle would do.