Ever get caught up in one of those news stories about an unfolding Search & Rescue operation, obsessively tuning in, day after day or every hour, to see if the person has been found?
Like that autistic boy who went missing in West Virginia's Dolly Sods Wilderness. Or the climbers stranded on Oregon's Mount Hood. Sometimes the ending is a happy one—like the California father and his three teenage kids who were found, safe and generally sound (albeit cold), days after getting lost in an unexpected snow storm while they were looking for a Christmas tree.
Other times, the endings are tragic, like the case of the hiker in Georgia who set out with her dog near the Appalachian Trail and was later found murdered.
Sometimes there is no ending—the subject is never located. In other cases, the whereabouts of the victim is known, but bringing him or her out of the backcountry to safety and, perhaps, to medical care, or the care to them, is the challenge.
There are those who head into the wilderness unprepared and get into trouble. There are people who are as prepared as can be, but still accidents happen. There are those who fall and those who jump. Lost children. Alzheimer's patients who wander off. Avalanches and floods that carry away more than just trees and rocks.
What is it about a particular Search & Rescue mission that makes the national news take notice, while others warrant just a paragraph, tucked away in the local paper?
Sometimes, there is no story. At least, nothing printed in a public forum. But those stories are happening all the time, lives are being saved in the backcountry, all over the country on a daily basis, and those stories are a big deal to the people involved—on both ends of the rescue. I've never been searched for (that I know of) or rescued, but in October, 2007, after 53 hours of mandatory, basic training, I became a Search & Rescue (SAR) volunteer with the Coconino County, Arizona Sheriff's Search & Rescue Team.
At 38, I'm an experienced hiker, with a resume including a six-month, 2200-mile Appalachian Trail thru-hike, many shorter backpacking trips and countless day-hikes, but that was all about taking care of me, watching my own steps, handling my own gear.
Search & Rescue, on the other hand, means acquiring a whole new skill set. It means learning to look for and take care of others while, at the same time, watching out for my own well-being and, as a member of a team, that of other SAR volunteers. It means becoming proficient at map and compass—something I should have known as a backpacker. It means learning to use a GPS and how to communicate on a radio. I have to learn how to track and spot clues, and what to do with those tracks and clues once I find them. I'll need to learn how to use ropes and straps, and ride ATVs and snowmobiles. Low-angle rescue, high-angle rescue, snow and ice skills. And the list goes on.
So, why do I want to be a SAR volunteer? I suppose that "to help others" would be the politically correct answer. And, once I'm out there on a mission, I sure do want to find who we're looking for, and to find them alive and well and bring them home to hike--or climb, or ski, or camp, etc.--another day.
To be honest, though, I've always wanted to be "in on it." I've wanted to be part of what was going on out there on those missions I'd hear about on TV or read about in the paper. And I love the adventure of it all. Being in the woods or up on a mountain in the middle of the night, my headlamp lighting the ground in front of me and gear and gadgets on my back, dangling from my pack and stuffed in my pockets, with the DPS helicopter flying overhead while most of the world is asleep and someone is somewhere "out there," waiting to be found, is such a thrill. I love the confidence that comes with learning new skills, even if it's just figuring out how to hook the trailer to the SAR truck all by myself. Basically, I like to be useful.
So this is my journal as a member of SAR. I'm starting out pretty green, somewhat afraid to jump in and make a mistake. I hesitate to press the button on that radio I'm carrying and actually speak, for fear of not saying something "just right."
I watch other volunteers secure the ATVs to the trailer, but when I put my own hands on those uncooperative straps, I can't seem to figure out what to do with them. And I'm really afraid of those big, bad, four-wheeled machines that can do such bodily harm. I don't know how to maneuver a trailer without backing it into something. Or someone.
I've never done any bonafide rock climbing and have no clue what to do with a rope. I've passed the Wilderness First Responder medical course twice but have never used it for real; the blood and broken bones have always been fake.
And I'm sure not the bravest person, to say the least, when it comes to the great outdoors. (Falling, bears, rattlesnakes, lightning ... yikes!) But I hope Search & Rescue will change all that—will help me improve me—and, in turn, I'll be able to help others. So I guess maybe my heart is, at least in part, in the right place.