These are my stories as a volunteer member of the Sheriff's Search & Rescue team in Coconino County, Arizona. I'll share what it's like to go from a beginner with a lot to learn to an experienced and, hopefully, valuable member of the team, as well as the missions, trainings, and other activities along the way.
About Coconino County
About Coconino County
Encompassing 18,661 square miles, Coconino County, Arizona, is the second largest county in the U.S. but one of the least populated. Our county includes Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi Indian Reservations, and the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world. Elevations range from 2,000 feet above sea level along the Colorado River to 12,633 feet at the summit of Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff.
May 8, 2009
Lost And Found
My adrenaline kicked in immediately. "You bet!" I told him and began gathering my gear while still on the phone. I admit, it feels good to be called before the pager has even gone off. Al said he needed someone to do nav/comm (to navigate and work the radio) while he worked with Cassie, the team tracking dog.
This would be a search for an elderly woman (details ommitted), who'd left the family's campsite that morning with her two dogs, but one dog had returned alone. Al needed to get to the staging area with Cassie as soon as possible, where a scent article was available, and begin the hasty search. I changed into field clothes and was out the door in five minutes.
After rendezvousing at the SAR building, then a stop at the Sheriff's office for a briefing, we were off towards Ashfork, down old (decaying) Route 66 and onto a rough dirt road to Stone Dam. A short while later, Cassie was in her harness and on her lead, and after a good smell of the scent article, she and Al began working while I followed a short distance behind. I didn't want to distract Cassie or get in her way.
It was a good bit hotter at that lower elevation in the pinion-juniper than in Flagstaff. My mouth was dry within minutes, and my Gatorade was hot in no time, but I was in the "zone," focused on our task, and didn't really notice the heat or the cactus barbs sticking through my trail runners.
While Al and I followed Cassie, weaving through the thick brush along the south side of the lake, other field teams were heading out from base, some on foot and others on ATVs, calling the woman's name and searching for clues or prints--either those that might belong to the subject or the tiny dog she was with. We had no idea, of course, if the two were still together.
Cassie, a three year-old German Shepherd, appeared very intent on her work, trying to find the scent, but she displayed "no positive alerts" during the hours that passed. At one point, we searched a narrow drainage, until a drop-off and thick brush prevented us from going further.
Al explained that it's easier for Cassie to follow scent in cooler temperatures--that it degrades faster in the heat. He was also unsure of the integrity, so to speak, of the scent article, which had been gathered before our arrival and mixed with a pair of boots.
After several hours of searching, we returned to base. Our intention was to leave Cassie there to rest after all that time in the heat and continue searching without her. But not long after we'd set down our packs for a short break ourselves, we heard over the radio that the subject had been found. What a relief! At her age and given the time since she'd last been seen, the heat and lack of water, I was very concerned about the outcome. She was okay, though, and so was her dog. (I was worried about the chihuahua too!)
From what I understand, some of those programmable signs along the highway--you know, the kind that display road construction information or Amber alerts--had displayed a message about the missing woman, during which time a motorist saw that message, then spotted an elderly woman with a dog along the road and reported it, and that led to our subject's rescue. Nice!
As the woman was reunited with family and our team reconvened and waited to debrief, I realized this had been one of the more costly missions I'd been on, personally speaking. You know that brand new camera I was so excited about? Gone. Yep, it's out there somewhere amongst the pinion-juniper. So if you happen to be out that way, doing some bushwhacking, and find a camera with some cool helicopter shots on it, let me know. If you wanna keep it, though, that's okay; my understanding and generous husband went out and bought me a new one with his own art supply fund after I'd called him, pouting, from the field. But no photos this time, I'm afraid.
At about 8pm, we arrived back at the SAR building and proceeded to unload all the unit gear and ATVs ... JUST in time to head out for another mission.
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