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.

A Tracking Challenge: Are We Making This Up?

"Are we making this up?" Robert said and not for the first time that morning, asking himself again as much as me.

I stood there, staring at the faint depression in the pine needles.

"I don't think so," I replied without complete confidence. "I mean, we keep seeing things, and we were sure that was a partial print back there. So I think we're on the track."

Whether it was the subject's track, though, was another question. We'd been told he was wearing "motorcycle boots," but we weren't sure of the tread and couldn't be sure the information was accurate. It wouldn't have been the first time we'd been told a missing person was wearing one kind of shoe only to find out later he or she was wearing something very different.

We'd been trying to follow whoever's track that was for a couple of hours, starting not far from the campsite the missing man had been sharing with his son, until he walked away from there the day before and failed to return. It was now nearing noon, the worst time of day for tracking with the sun overhead.

We were sure someone had gone under the barbed wire fence at the bottom of the hill--the grass was flattened, and there was a partial print nearby--and we were pretty sure that same someone had come up to the top of the hill where we were standing. But trying to track through pine needles is a real challenge. Robert and I kept having to kneel down and carefully move the needles out of the way to see if in fact that faint impression was indeed a foot step.

Then there were the little holes I saw here and there near the impressions. We'd been told the 77 year-old subject had been carrying a cut-off golf club as a hiking stick. The holes I saw now and then in the small patches of bare dirt seemed kind of small to be made by a cut-off golf club. But, then again, it had rained heavily during the night, and some dirt had probably been washed back into the holes. Robert wasn't quite as convinced as I was that, yes indeed, those were cut-off golf club holes.

As the two of us made slow progress along the track, we heard a couple of our teammates on the radio, also following some tracks. Could we all be on the same track, I wondered, just made at different times? Based on their location, I thought it was possible.

And as we were tracking, other teams were driving containment on Forest Service roads, a K9 team was in the field, and some folks from our mounted unit were searching on horseback. Other campers and a deputy in the area were also looking for the missing man. Given his age and the fact that he apparently had not been carrying any supplies when he left the day before, I don't think I was the only one concerned about the subject's well-being.

BUT, as it turned out, he was in very good shape when he came walking along the meadow towards camp. Turns out, the man had indeed gotten lost and spent the rest of the day before and all that morning wandering around, trying to find his way back to his camp. He'd spent at least some of the night lying on the ground, trying to sleep. But aside from being a bit dehydrated, he was okay.

Before Robert and I headed back to base, where the vehicles were parked, to debrief, we did have a chance to look at the subject's boots. Yep, those had been his tracks alright! And it seems that Robert and I were following the same tracks that our teammates had been following, only we were further along in the timeline. (That is, the tracks we were on were more recent.) And from what the K9 handler said, the dogs had been showing signs of interest when they'd been getting close to where the man had apparently walked not long before they arrived. So not only did this search have a positive outcome, but us SAR members also got some positive reinforcement that our skills had been working for us. 

And in other news...

Here's a recent phone interview I did with a website called "One-Minute How-To" about becoming a Search & Rescue volunteer.

This is a really good canine SAR book I just finished: Scent of the Missing

And here are two of my teammates practicing mid-face litter scoops while maneuvering on ropes suspended from the ceiling of the SAR building and using a 225-pound dummy we call "Rescue Randy."

Watch the video on YouTube