Search and Rescue

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After a night out, Search and Rescue finds Dad in good shape.

Note: click images to see a larger version in a new window

Long intro

I had had a busy Saturday. I finished painting the extra bedroom, went for a long bike ride out to the end of the pavement by Arrowrock dam in training for the Trek 100, mowed the lawn, went to the grocery store, and had settled into the recliner for the evening with a book when my cell rang.

No caller ID... Oh what the heck. I'm relaxing-- don't bother me. Often, I would ignore such a call at such a time. But this time, I picked it up and it's Valley County Sheriff Dispatch. Yikes.... they are looking for my dad.

I get the gist of the message. It's a little after 7 and my dad has been missing since about 2. They want me to help and bring anyone I can. Brown's Pond up Lick Creek Road. I did not like the way this sounded.

Right now, our house is totally disorganized because we are painting. So my stuff, normally ready to go, is all over the house. Put some water in a bottle, print a map, grab some trail food, all my headlamp collection, etc. It takes me at most 15 minutes to gather my gear, get the cats inside, and hit the road for the two and a half hour drive.

On the way across town I am every driver's nightmare: trying to move fast in my big truck while dialing everybody I know on my cell phone. And totally absorbed by the possible implications of where I am going. I was well passed Shadow Valley before I realized how disconnected I was. Art was on his way (he lives near McCall), several people had been put on alert to depart alpine-start early the next morning if they didn't hear, and a bunch of messages left.

When I got to Long Valley, I pushed the re-dial button and dispatch told me no change: Dad was still missing. Call again.

Knowing Dad has had some recent health issues, I talked to my friend Doctor Pelton for advice (aka Michael, for readers of my climbing reports). Actually, he was calling me. He was in California, but returning my voice mail asking for his help in the search. He apprised me of what I could expect of a diabetic who was without meds. Dad is on some other meds as well, but Michael felt those would likely not cause any acute reactions.

I got to McCall in record time and headed straight up Lick Creek road. Another call to dispatch: still no change. Once leaving McCall, there is no cell phone service. Julie, staying at our house, would have to be our 'command central' and guide my good friends in to help (Valley County dispatch was command central for everyone else, and they had radio contact with the actual search).

On the map you will find McCall on the lower left, just below Payette lake. Brown's Pond is upstream and to the right. The footbridge across Lake Fork Creek is at the 'Forest Service Station' just upstream from there (we call it the Lake Fork Guard Station).

McCall

When I got to the gated road to the Guard Station, Art was already there. I met a few of the Valley County Search and Rescue folks. They showed me on a map where Dad was last sighted, where they had found part of a plastic shopping bag that might have been a clue, and asked that we not get lost in the dark.

Shelley, Dad's wife, arrived back with some searchers looking distraught (surprise, right?). She explained that they were mushrooming within voice of each other just 10 or 15 minutes from the bridge, with an agreement to be back at the car by 3 for dad's scheduled (very important) prescription eyedrops. Then they got separated. She had also given them a description of Dad: 82 years old. Diabetic. Other recent health issues leaving him weak and out of shape after losing a bunch of weight. Wearing light trousers, a light flannel shirt, and a sun hat. A plastic shopping bag for mushrooms. No pack. No food. No water. No gear whatsoever. They were out (on their anniversary!) to pick mushrooms for an hour, 15 or 20 minutes from the car, on familiar terrain. That was seven hours ago. Not good.

I supplemented the info: although Dad is an octogenarian, he can out-hike most 40-year-olds. He knows the woods exceptionally well. He is an expert navigator. But his diabetes, an unknown factor, could leave him weak, confused, and disoriented. So a total wild card in terms of predicting his behavior.

By that time the sun had set. A few more searchers were still in the field. I got dressed and put on my headlamp and walked out across the footbridge over the creek. Holy cow! Lake Fork Creek was raging, and it looked especially impressive under the myopic beam of a headlamp. No way was anyone going to successfully cross that, besides the fact that Dad is sort of afraid of water. So that left Dad with only two ways to cross: the bridge I was on, and the bridge at Snowdon, many miles down stream. There used to be a dam at Brown's Pond, just a few miles downstream, but it had blown out in the floods a couple years back.

The last searchers came out of the woods at 11:30. No further info. SAR was headed home for the night to return at 6am sharp. Art and I got a plan of action for before they arrived the next morning, then settled into my truck for some very restless shuteye. A few minutes later, Tom, my brother, showed up. When he got my call, he had over 100 miles of bike racing in his legs, having just finished riding in the Lyle Pearson bike race. He was heading back from Sun Valley, so had a long drive just to get to Boise. And then another two and a half hours to McCall. And I thought I was tired! More discussion. We got back in the truck with the windows open in case Dad showed up in the moonlight.

I was, shall we say, overwrought? Every little sound brought me to fully alert in an instant. Dad? Is that you? I stared into the moonlight, trying to hope him into appearing. Needless to say, I slept very little. Back at Dad's house in McCall, the girls were up too. It was too easy to think that Dad might not be coming back....

When my alarm went off at 4:30, Art groaned. But he wasn't really asleep either. And he was very understanding of my anxiety. And about then we started hearing a bit of pitter patter on the truck. Damn, it's raining. But in Boise's heat I had not brought my Goretex. Well at least I have a jacket-- Dad has none. Fortunately, the rain did not last long. With headlamps on, Tom, Art, and I set off. We were hoping to get up the ridge before light, then come back down in a search pattern and arrive in time for our 6am meeting with SAR.

The Google Earth image is looking downstream. The white dot shows the Lake Fork Guard Station, and the white line is the bridge. I traced in a line that could show where Dad possibly went. His route is still not really clear.

Google

SAR was already on the move when we arrived. Several parties had their orders and headed out. We met Chris, who would be our team leader, and then Tom's family showed. So our team was Chris and John from SAR, me, Art, Tom, his wife Susan, and daughter Mackenzie.We hiked up the ridge and arranged ourselves in a line. We began to methodically traverse the brushy hillside. I had my altimeter, and that was our base line. John was at the bottom, and everyone else was evenly dispersed between us, spacing about 30-60 feet apart up the hillside. We 'walked' down the valley all the way to the marsh. It's not walking as you'd like, though, because instead of taking the easy way around deadfall or through the dense alder thickets, you go right through the middle, trying to hold a steady contour. And looking under every log or tree, covering every square foot of ground. When we got to the marsh, we were all scratched, sweaty, and tired. I found a tick. The mosquitoes were out. But no sign of Dad.

For our return we pivoted and reversed our route, this time with John retracing his steps as the uphill anchor. The flatter terrain was a little easier walking, but harder to visually scan due to the lack of elevation advantage. When we got back to the bridge, we still had seen no sign. Meanwhile, others teams had returned with no good news. A dog team was similarly disappointed. But my Boise friends had arrived: Bob, Ralph, and Dave were there. I tried my best to be cheery and promote a positive attitude as we made introductions.

At this point, pretty much all the suspect terrain had been covered at least once. People had investigated all the side roads and campgrounds again, just in case he had gotten across the river. We were going to go back out and sweep the creek bank, some of which we had missed on our two previous passes. Others had their assignments to re-cover ground already checked. With no sign at all, things were seeming more and more grim. As a desperate measure, Art suggested that a team go all the way down to Snowdon, the only other way across the raging torrent. It was a long way, in extremely rough country, but Art knows my Dad. Art was the only one who knew the terrain down there, plus he knows the folks at Snowdon so could best explain our trespass. So he swapped places on our team with Dave to lead Bob and Ralph. Their group all got in their cars and headed down to work their way back up from there.

Our team crossed the bridge again and started our third pass, which would this time include the creek bank. We were about 20 minutes into it when the radio crackled: possible sighting. We all held our collective breath. Sighting confirmed! I felt like someone had just removed a 100-pound pack from my shoulders.

OK. Dad is on our side of the creek at the ford, about a mile or so downstream. Our sweep would likely have found him, but someone double-checking all the access points from the main road had gone down to the creek and there Dad was, sitting in the sand on the other side. We had to restrain ourselves from running down the valley. I apologize to those we dropped... Dave, Tom, Mackenzie, and I were at just short of full-tilt.

The map shows a possible version of Dad's routes. The red guy is where we found him. The yellow dot is where we were parked.

Map

So here's how things went when we got there.

Dad was sitting on the sand, communicating with a couple guys on the other side who were trying to assess his condition over the roar of the water. We each went up and gave Dad a hug. We hugged each other. We waved at the growing group on the opposite shore. And then Susan said, "Too bad we don't have a camera."

Well, I might not have had any brains left, but I did have a camera in my pack. Don't ask why I had it.

So Susan shot this one, and then Mackenzie took over. You can see that Dad wasn't overdressed for his night out.

And this is right were he spent the night. Thank goodness it had been a mild one.

When he woke up, he had hiked down to the dam at Brown's Pond, forgetting that the dam had blown out. So he couldn't get across. He had then hiked back up here on his way to the bridge we had been using.

Later, Art's group would come across his tracks on their way up from Snowdon, noticing Dad had gone both ways, up and down, and also was having a hard time with 'easy' creek crossings. Remember, though, tht when I say 'hiking' a here, there is no trail and it's extremely brushy, wooded, north-exposure terrain.

So back to the story....

Family

Soon, Shelley, Dad's wife, arrived. It was hard to hear over the noise of the creek, but I'm pretty sure she was happy. Dad was in remarkably good shape. Alert, smiling, and seemingly happy to see us.

The plan was to ferry Dad across the creek in an inflatable. So we had to wait for McCall Fire and EMS to arrive. While we waited, we tried to figure out what food we could give Dad without causing a diabetic reaction, yelling back and forth to get Shelley's OK. Cheese. He can eat cheese.

Shelley

Then the ferry setup was ready to go.

We got Dad into his safety gear.

Getting dressed
Dad had been sitting for some time, and it took a couple guys to get him up. He was a little wobbly at first, but eventually got his legs to work. Getting up
We got him arranged in the front of the kayak, and he got his instructions. Instructions

Then it was time for the launch.

Loading

When he got to the other side, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. And cheered.

Here's the final rescue from Shelley's point of view.

Back on our side of the creek, our team wasn't quite done. We had to hike back upstream to get across the bridge. Along the way, we started to collect mushrooms. Ironically, we found lots. But now my deeply-fogged brain noticed that the intensive focus needed to find morels made it hard to navigate, something I will heretofore refer to as the mushroom wobble. Hmmm....

But we eventually got back. Here's the command center for the search, an important part of a much bigger group of great folks. I cannot adequately express my gratitude to all those who helped, and I apologize for not remembering every single name. A simple Thank You will have to suffice.

Headquarters

Epilog, Lessons Learned, and a Thanks

So a couple thoughts...

  • You never know when those random calls might be important. Especially if you have outdoors friends, elderly parents, etc.
  • I'm adding a good whistle to my Possibles bag. I can whistle very loudly with my fingers so never bothered with one in the past. But my throat is killing me today from yelling so much.
  • Even expert navigators can become lost. Dad is a wizard with map, compass, and altimeter; and over the years has navigated himself to almost every lake in the McCall backcountry-- close to a hundred of them, many of which are trailless. Not an easy task. But note that this wasn't even a hike, just a walk on familiar terrain.
  • If you go on a search, wear bright colors. During our sweep, it was hard to maintain visual with people dressed in dark colors. And while you're at it, you might wear bright colors when you hike. Dad would not have been easy to see if he had been laying under a tree somewhere.
  • I don't carry a GPS. I'm fine with a map and compass, and prefer to not rely (or be distracted) by technology. But for this activity, a GPS is a huge asset. You want to be able to document your path and location with precision, and with a GPS I might have considered searching at night. I've already started shopping.
  • If one of your buddies is lost, do everything you can to make Search and Rescue understand that you are not "normal." When we finally found Dad, the SAR folks were baffled and amazed that Dad had covered so much ground. They were thinking "82 year old diabetic" and thinking he could only go a few blocks. In fact, Dad had gone something like five or six miles through heavy brush and deadfall, and was still moving. Even exhausted and shaky, I believe that if left alone he would have been back to the bridge in another couple of hours. He knew right where he was and was dealing with his navigation mistake earlier (likely induced by the dreaded mushroom wobble). While you're at it, emphasize that we are used to navigating demanding terrain and it's not a big deal to hike through crap that would bring most folks to a screeching halt-- we got mad skilz. SAR had assumed that Dad couldn't get across an intermediary stream, so he had gone outside the search 'box'.
  • This is the first time I've participated in this kind of a search. The emotions of worrying about my Dad were simply overwhelming and I can't help but sympathize and empathize with others who have gone through similar. After seeing and feeling this one, I'll be volunteering my time to do it again in the future.
  • Last, I apologize for all the weird voice messages I left on my friends' phones. And I deeply thank those friends who dropped everything and spent hours thrashing the brush (and other endeavors with the same goal) looking for some old man whom some of them didn't even know.

Footnote

After the dust settled, I talked to Dad. From the sounds of it, he actually covered more ground than I had thought. And he was more confused, too. So it's a little hard to tell exactly where all he went. He described a road with multiple small clear cuts, and a body of water, neither of which show up on the map. And because he had only been to the area around Brown's Pond when there was a good-sized lake, he did not recognize the terrain (the pond is now empty), which made him question where he was even more.

One thing that did not help: the batteries in his watch chose this as the time to die. So the watch's altimeter and compass, his favorite navigation tools, were not working to help him sort it out. Also, he said that without a watch he had no idea what the time was during the night, making the cold and dark seem all the longer.