Chapter 1: The Kathy G
On a rainy afternoon in early April of 2021, the Kathy G was parked on a concrete pad between a vegetable garden on one side and the house of corporal Peter Westra, an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), on the other. The 23-foot-long aluminum boat has a small pilothouse and high sides that make it difficult to climb into from the water. It has a short steel mast and boom that looks like a miniature crane. The Kathy G is clearly meant for work, not the kind of vessel you take out for a cruise or to waterski behind.
The boat, and the motorhome parked nearby, belonged to Gene and Sandy Ralston, a married couple in their mid-70s from a rural area outside of Boise, Idaho. They use a particular type of sonar to search lakes and rivers throughout Canada and the United States for the bodies of people who drown. They’re self-taught, but among the best underwater search and recovery specialists in the world. As of two-and-half weeks ago, they’ve found 127 corpses. Most of those people would still be missing if not for the Ralstons. They are the option of last resort. They get the call to help only after the local and official resources have been exhausted. And they offer their boat and expertise on a volunteer basis. They only charge expenses, basically gas money and whatever it costs to park their motorhome. The going commercial rate for this type of equipment and expertise varies, but $4,000 a day is considered reasonable.
I drove 600 miles—up and over two mountain ranges—to join Gene and Sandy in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, a small city not far east of Vancouver and Canada’s Pacific coastline. The local police, which are called the Ridge Meadows RCMP, have asked them to help on two searches. One is for a 37-year-old man who drown in Alouette Lake this past October. The other is for a small plane, and its two pilots, that crashed into a river about a year ago. The RCMP are a federal policing agency in Canada that also provide regional and municipal services on a contract basis. The Ridge Meadows detachment had 112 officers and about 50 civilian staff. The Ralstons have committed to another search in a lake about a three-hour drive east of Maple Ridge for a young man from Wyoming.
And then, if they have time, Corporal Pete Westra, the missing persons coordinator with the local RCMP, told them about four other cold cases that involve people presumed to have drown in Alouette Lake that he would like to get solved once and for all. One of those incidents happened in the summer of 1974. Two friends were out fishing when a wave rolled over the back of the boat and it sank. They swam for shore. One man was rescued by a passing boat. The other drown. Police, family and volunteers searched the shoreline. The family hired scuba divers, but Alouette is over 500 feet deep in places—way beyond the capability of all but the most advanced divers. Searchers tried to recover the body of the young man by dragging metal hooks across the lake bottom.
For most of human history, deep lakes did not give up their dead. In warm, shallow water, decomposition goes fast and creates gases that surface the corpse within two to three days. But cold temperatures dramatically slow down the decay. People who drown in water that is 100 feet or deeper may never surface. The weight of the water traps the body on the bottom. The oldest corpse that the Ralstons have found was missing for 29 years. The man had been wearing heavy, durable clothing when he drown, which helped to keep his body intact. The sonar image shows the body lying on its back on an otherwise smooth lake bottom at a depth of 570 feet. It is one of the sharpest outlines of a body the Ralstons have ever recorded.
The search gear, which is called side-scan sonar, uses sound instead of light to create a picture of the bottom of a lake, river or ocean. The transducer, the device that generates the sound pulses and records their echoes, is housed in a torpedo-shaped casing called a towfish and is pulled behind the boat and close to the bottom. The Ralstons have enough cable on board to search down to 1000 feet. Reading a sonar image involves deciphering the shadows that different objects cast on the bottom. The sound generated by the sonar reflects off the contours of solid objects—rocks, logs, bodies, sunken treasure—and makes them appear bright and distinct on the computer screen on the boat. The resolution is high enough that Gene and Sandy can pick out beer cans and fishing rods. Sometimes, if the lake bottom is smooth and free of other debris like rocks or vegetation, anyone can distinguish the shape of a body. Other times, it’s much trickier.
This type of sonar was invented in the 1950s, but kept secret by the American military for decades. The technology became more widely available in the 1980s, but it took a while for people to grasp the potential. Side-scan sonar has revolutionized underwater exploration. It’s like someone flicked a switch and turned the lights on in the dark corners of the deepest waters. All of a sudden people could effectively search large areas of the bottoms of lakes, rivers and oceans. Everyone from treasure hunters to archaeologists and engineers had the power to see through water in real time.
The Ralstons bought their system in the fall of the year 2000 and unwittingly became pioneers on how to use the technology to find bodies. Their original plan had been to use the sonar primarily for their business. Gene and Sandy ran their own environmental consulting firm and did a variety of work on the water, like investigating the impacts of a proposed hydroelectric dam or measuring the change in sediment levels in reservoirs used for drinking water. They thought the sonar would be handy for mapping river bottoms to help engineers decide the best places to build bridges. But within weeks of getting it up and running, Gene and Sandy imaged the body of 23-year-old Brandon Larsen on the bottom of Bear Lake, Utah. Word spread about a couple from Idaho with a mysterious technology that could reveal the secrets of the deep. Over the next few years, more and more business projects gave way to search missions. As did vacations, hobbies, friends and family—all those things that make up what most people consider a normal life.
The Ralstons never set out to become experts at finding drowning victims. They stumbled upon a major gap in the services available to the families of people who drown and go missing in water. Police and volunteer search and rescue organizations are limited in terms of resources and expertise when it comes to deep water. If the initial search effort fails, families are often left to figure it out on their own. They can hire a commercial outfit, which costs thousands of dollars a day. Or they can call Gene and Sandy.
I first met the Ralstons in early 2017 at a public library in a strip mall south of Boise. I had heard about them about a month earlier from a friend of my parents who has a summer cottage on Shuswap Lake in British Columbia. The family friend told me about how the Ralstons had recovered the body of a 25-year-old man from Calgary, my hometown.
Kevin Boutilier jumped off a houseboat during the summer of 2013 to retrieve his baseball hat, which was blown off his head by a gust of wind. His family and the local authorities tried everything—sonar, underwater submersible, scuba divers—over a period of eleven months to find his body. The Ralstons arrived and located the body their second day on the water. I learned that not only did Gene and Sandy do this unusual work, but they were unusually good at the unusual work.
I emailed Gene to discuss writing a magazine story about them and we set up a time to meet in person. We talked for a few hours each afternoon over three days in a private room at the Lake Hazel Library. Gene was mannerly and chatty. He wore a collared flannel shirt tucked into jeans. His brown hair was greying and parted neatly to the side. Age had begun to soften the sharp edges of his body and face, but he looked strong and capable. Sandy has expansive blue eyes. Their striking color contrasts with the whiteness of her shoulder-length hair, which was pinned to the side and off her face with a small plastic clip. She wore roomy sweatshirts and cardigans that emphasized her small stature and frame. Sandy was more guarded than Gene. She had a no-nonsense demeanor and would often flick the fingers of one hand to hurry her husband to the point of his story.
It was hard to keep all the different parts of all the different searches and recoveries straight. There was the time they helped the FBI find the bodies of four murder victims on the bottom of a reservoir in California. That was a “six-pack-of-beer story”, the unit of Gene storytelling that comes after “the really long story.” They imaged a 1927 Chevrolet sedan on the bottom of a lake in Washington State on the search right after that one. The discovery of the car solved the mystery of what had happened to Blanche and Russell Warren, a married couple who vanished on a summer afternoon in 1929, leaving behind two young sons. Or then there was the time they had an astronaut from NASA onboard to help search for the wreckage of the Space Shuttle Columbia in a reservoir in Texas. I flew home from Idaho with a full notebook.
I met Barb Boutilier a couple of weeks later in Calgary. She is a retired teacher and had raised Kevin and his older sister on her own. She was proud of her son, of his vitality and big circle of close friends. She had been a hockey mom, driving Kevin to an endless stream of practices and games. She described one of her favorite memories of her son. It was a brief moment, a snapshot she had caught of him and his friends through the living-room window on a summer afternoon. He had recently got his driver’s license and was in the family car, a white four-door sedan. His friends in the backseat were holding onto hockey nets, their arms out the windows of both sides of the car. They were headed down the street to a park. “They played hockey even in the summer time, those guys. It was kind of their life,” she said.
Barb showed me the sonar image that the Ralstons had made of her son’s body on the bottom of Shuswap Lake. She had it on her cellphone. “So that’s kind of what it looks like, that’s actually him, off Gene and Sandy’s computer,” she said. The Ralstons had shown me similar images back in Idaho. A human body is easy to recognize in some sonar images, a bright yellow figure on an otherwise flat and barren surface. It’s what you can’t see, what your mind instantly infers—the 300 or so feet of water in the case of Kevin Boutilier—that lends the images such a haunting quality.
“You need to bring him home. Everybody says it’s closure—I don’t know if it brings closure.” Barb told me that she still had Kevin’s ashes in her house. She had another more permanent place for his remains arranged, but she wasn’t ready to take that step. “It’s much better for him to be here than at the bottom of that lake. Every parent, anyone, would prefer to have their loved ones some place they know. I guess they’re not safe, but close by.”
She struggled to find the words to explain the service, the gift, that Gene and Sandy had provided. Bringing a body back from the deep never means bringing a person back from the dead, but it was crucial for Barb and her family to have Kevin’s body home and to have somewhere she could visit and remember and feel close to her son. I wanted to write about Gene and Sandy because I wanted to write about the people they have helped in this very specific and yet hard-to-put-your-finger-on kind of way.
But it was all so sad. Even when the Ralstons succeed, it’s sad. I felt guilty for dredging these memories up for Barb. It was clear, however, that she wanted to talk about her son and about the Ralstons. Maybe less because she wanted to be part of an article than she wanted to pay Gene and Sandy back somehow. “They are the only ones who can help people. They are the only ones who can do this,” she said.
I joined the Ralstons on a search that spring for a man in his early 60s who was presumed to have drown in Slocan Lake, B.C. Gene and Sandy spent close to two weeks scanning an immense swath of the bottom, but never found him. Then I followed them for part of another search that summer, then a three-day training session in the fall on how to use sonar to find drowning victims that they did for military and law enforcement officials in California. I was with them in the spring of 2019 when they found the body of a 20-year-old man who had drown after his canoe capsized. That day happened to be Gene’s 74th birthday. I eventually wrote the article about them but continued to go out on searches if they were on a lake near Calgary.
I was curious why, even after this type of sonar had become widely available, they stayed so busy—why they prevailed on searches after other teams using the same technology failed. Gene and Sandy had an uncanny knack for finding bodies.
Barb told me that the Ralstons talked to her about retiring during the search for Kevin back in the summer of 2014. Almost a decade later and they continued to respond to requests for help. I knew that someday, maybe one day soon, they would be forced to stop because they could no longer manage the physical demands of the long days on the road and the water.
The practical mechanics of finding and recovering corpses are no doubt disturbing. But it’s that proximity to death and decay that highlights the humanity required to see the job through. So I drove to Maple Ridge to join the Ralstons one last time and learn as much as I could about this married couple from rural Idaho who served the living by finding the dead.