SHEEP CREEK BAY, Daggett County — Sheriff Jerry Jorgensen readily admits there's something unusual about riding in his agency's newest vehicle.
"It's kind of like a hockey puck," Jorgensen said, standing next to the eight-passenger hovercraft that was delivered to the Daggett County Sheriff's Office two weeks ago.
"It was actually ordered three or four years ago," the sheriff said. "The grant money coming in was for public protection, so they ordered a hovercraft."
The hovercraft, based at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, was purchased with Federal Emergency Management Agency funds awarded to Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah counties before Jorgensen was elected in 2010. Floating on a 16-inch cushion of air, it is able to transition easily from ice to water to flat land, making it invaluable to rescuers.
"This is really a great tool for the transitional times when we don't have good enough ice to go hard surface all the time with a four-wheeler or a snowmobile, for example, and we have too much ice to go with a traditional boat," said Daggett County Sheriff's Capt. Chris Collett.
Rescuers in Utah and Wyoming faced just that kind of "transitional" scenario during a January 2011 ice fishing tournament at Flaming Gorge.
Six anglers competing in the annual Burbot Bash were trapped on a shrinking sheet of ice that broke free from the shore and drifted for three-quarters of a mile. It took rescue teams from Daggett County and Sweetwater County, Wyo., several hours to reach the men by boat because they had to work their way through the ice.
"That type of ice rescue like that is almost impossible with a boat because you can't get the boat through the existing ice and then back into open water," Jorgensen said.
While the hovercraft is expected to improve search and rescue operations, it will also help the sheriff's office carry out another of its missions: providing security for Flaming Gorge Dam.
"We do have a contract to guard the dam, and there are certain times of the year that we can't get a boat in, in front of the dam," the sheriff said.
"With some of the boat docks, you're unable to launch a boat down by the dam, so this gives us 365 days a year where we can get into the dam, and on the Green River actually," Jorgensen added.
The sheriff knows some people will grumble about the $104,000 price tag for the hovercraft, but he's willing to weather those complaints.
"It's one of these vehicles that when you need it, you need it. It can't be replaced by something else," Jorgensen said. "If it saves one life or two lives over the next few years, then it will have been worth it, in my mind."