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.
August 29, 2008
He Plugged His Ears???
It was so dark with no moonlight at all. When I turned off my headlamp, I couldn't see my hand just inches from my face. As three of us searched, calling for Blaine and blowing our whistles along the Mormon Mountain trail, I thought about how scared I'd be, even as an adult, being lost out there alone all night long. And it got pretty chilly just before dawn. The boy, we're told, was wearing just desert camouflage and carrying no extra clothing.
Blaine came up from Phoenix with his uncle to do some archery deer hunting in the Mormon Lake area. His uncle dropped him off at the gate near the top of Mormon Mountain at 2:00 yesterday afternoon, with an arranged rendezvous time at that same location. But Blaine didn't make it back. At 7:30pm, he made a cellphone call to his uncle, saying his GPS had run out of battery power and he'd gotten lost. The reception was poor and the conversation apparently was not long.
The uncle told us he'd fired off thirty rounds to try to help the boy navigate towards his location. No further cellphone contact was made, and it appears that Blaine's phone may have since gone dead; our calls keep going right to voice mail.
Blaine's uncle had a spotlight, which he pointed straight up, hoping to provide a beacon once it got dark. But even if Blaine could see the light, he had no light source himself, so navigating this rocky, thickly forested terrain would have been just about impossible. If he did try to move, injury would be a likely scenario, so hopefully the boy stayed put at least until first light.
The Sheriff's deputy in charge of this search in Sergeant D's absence told us Blaine's last cellphone call had bounced off a tower near I-17. That gave us some indication of what general side of the mountain Blaine would have been on at the time of that call. So we took that into consideration when coming up with a game plan.
Given that only three of us SAR members were able to respond last night, we had to search on foot as a single team, while Blaine's family and the deputy drove the perimeter roads throughout the night.
After clearing the area along the Mormon Mountain trail, finding no footprints or establishing voice contact despite all the noise we made which seemed to carry quite well in the stillness, we were picked up by the deputy and driven back to the top of the mountain. What now?
We decided that a little rest was in order, and we'd wait until dawn to continue our search. At that time, another call-out would be made to hopefully get some additional help and cover more area. So Bob, Joe and I climbed into SAR vehicles, made ourselves as comfortable as possible, and got some spotty shut-eye for about an hour. As soon as we could see without headlamps, we resumed searching.
We've just finished bushwhacking around the mountaintop, shouting down slope, searching for clues. Getting progressively more worried. Is the boy injured and unresponsive? Could he have crossed over the perimeter road and kept going? If so, he might be pretty far away after walking since 2:00 yesterday. Could someone have picked him up along the road?
We're glad that Flag Ranger has now arrived, flying a grid pattern over the mountain. And we're told six additional SAR members are on their way with Sergeant D, as well as several deputies who'll assist. We've asked them to bring ATVs, too. There are many two-tracks in the area that aren't even on the maps.
In the meantime, the three of us who are on our second--or third?--wind will drive some other Forest Service roads. We're now heading down the road from the top of the mountain, and we see one of the family's vans coming up. They stop, and we roll down our windows to talk to the uncle, who's gotten out and is walking our way. He still doesn't look particularly alarmed. Like last night, he seems almost nonchalant, confident that his nephew will turn up.
He walks to our driver's side window.
"We haven't found anything yet," Bob tells the uncle. "But more searchers are on their way."
There's a pause.
"Great," the uncle replies. "Well, actually ... we found him."
What? Yay! I'm so relieved.
"Is he okay?" I ask, while Bob fishes for the radio to inform Incident Command right away.
"Yeah, he's fine."
"Great! Where did you find him? Where was he last night?"
The uncle proceeds to tell us that they found Blaine on this same road, heading down from the top, where he'd seen one of our SAR vehicles but it was unoccupied at the time. So he kept walking towards the place where he and his uncle had camped at the base of the mountain the night before last.
And where was Blaine last night? A little ways off the Mormon Mountain trail!
"Yeah," said the uncle, "he plugged his ears and went to sleep. When he woke up this morning, he heard the siren, but he went back to sleep for a while."
He plugged his ears! Why that little ... uh, I mean, that brave boy. I'm so glad he's okay.
I check my watch. Well, I can probably be at the office by noon.
Maybe plugging his ears kept him from being frightened. Still, a good addition to the "What not to do" list. I read "Lost on a Mountain in Maine" after hiking Katahdin last summer then read it to my boys as a cautionary tale.
How do you do this AND have a day job? Amazing.
Yes, that certainly crossed my mind (that he plugged his ears so he wouldn't be as scared), but my honest first reaction was, "He did what?!"
When we first got to the scene and talked to the uncle, he said his nephew sounded very calm and unconcerned on the phone. The subject, while only 15, had been hunting for a couple of years and was apparently used to being outdoors. And, if that day was any indication, probably outdoors on his own sometimes.
When we saw Blaine and spoke to him after he turned up, he looked sleepy but, from what I could tell, not all that upset OR relieved. But, of course, I could be wrong. It was just amazing, though, to be out there searching for twelve hours only to find out the boy was probably well within earshot ... if only he didn't have something in his ears! Oh well, at least it all ended well. That's the ultimate goal.
Oh, and as for the day job, I usually work just two days a week (Wednesdays and Thursdays). This week was unusual, given that I worked Monday through Friday. But I've gone to work without sleep, straight from a mission, several times before. As long as I'm busy, I'm okay. If it's quiet, though, it's a real challenge to stay awake. I've found myself face-down on the desk a time or two, jolted awake by the phone or someone standing over me. Now, THAT is embarrassing. But at least I usually still have my SAR shirt on (dirty SAR shirt), so I can point to the logo and give them my excuse.
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