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.
Grebenkemper is a historic human remains detection (HHRD) 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 HHRD work is all official through the Institute for Canine Forensics, 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.
“Before I joined, ICF had actually done a project at Alder Creek for a professor Kelly Dixon at the University of Montana,” Grebenkemper explained. “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.”
In 2007, after reading up about the Donner Party and the mysterious Alder Creek spots, Grebenkemper (at that point officially part of the ICF) took his first dog, Tali, up there where she, too, was able to detect the campfire’s location. But it wasn’t until his current dog, Kayle, was a year-and-a-half that he pushed beyond the boundaries of the campfire, sniffing about for clues to the area’s history.
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.
“I knew from the history there were potentially three camps [around Alder Creek]. The most Kelly Dixon’s group had found was one camp,” Grebenkemper said. “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.
“If someone ever wants to invest the effort and money and permits and has to do an archaeology dig there, maybe they would find real evidence,” Grebenkemper said. “Until you have recovered actual physical artifacts that you can identify were the Donners’, it’s hard to prove that it really is a Donner campsite.”
Starved Camp is another key local historical setting; a stopping point for those who made it out of the Alder Creek and lakeside camps. Cannibalization is recorded to have occurred here, too.
The exact spot is unknown, though many have tried in addition to Grebenkemper — who mentioned that Kayle has alerted in an area he believes to be where Starved Camp was. Bill Oudegeest, vice president of the Donner Summit Historical Society, has combed through diaries and other accounts to try and narrow down the location of the camp.
“I think maybe Kayle did find something, but the odds of it being Starved Camp are for many reasons very slim in my mind,” Oudegeest said to Moonshine. “… The accepted route of the immigrants is on the south side of Summit Canyon and if they came over the top of there, they would’ve gone past Lake Mary … and then through Summit Valley.”
Oudegeest joined Grebenkemper and Kayle for a stroll to see if Kayle might hit on anything along the “accepted route,” but she didn’t, nor did she hit on anything closer to Summit Valley. Oudegeest maintains, however, that the Starved Camp is in a different area than where Kayle alerted. Tree stumps identified in 1875 as those cut by the Donner Party were not the same type of trees near where Kayle hit on, and this possible location would be much more difficult to access than other areas.
Grebenkemper and Kayle have also partnered with the historical society on other sites in the area, such as the Chinese workers camps at Donner Summit, where Kayle alerted at multiple spots.
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,” he continued, “but the vast majority of the time they’re correct and it’s been verified by excavation.”