Lessons Learned From A Difficult Search

By Patrick Walker

It was 0430 and I was ready to go. My parents had made a one-time exception to let me go on this search and miss school. Something in my gut told me that this day would be different.

We left at 0500 and began the drive to Nevada County where we would be searching for a missing gold miner. At 0800, we reached Incident Command (IC), located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. After a bit of waiting, I got my team assignment. I was on a team with Steve Webber and Eddy Crochetiere and our assignment was to search an area around five acres in size. We would soon find out why our search area was so small.

We got dropped off via Gator in pretty much the middle of nowhere. The brush was like a wall on both sides. It was going to be tough to search through this. Down the trail a little we found a slight opening and decided to take it. I was placed in the middle of our line, since I was the only one without a GPS. Steve took up the perimeter. The terrain was so difficult and the brush so thick that we could only be about 15 feet apart in order to keep line of sight, and even that was difficult at times! After a couple of hours crawling through poison oak, we took a break to eat. It was 1230 and we weren’t even halfway done with our assignment.

We got going again, pushing through brush even thicker than before. We were talking about how tough the assignment was. We thought nobody would ever be in such a difficult area and that maybe we should tell IC it couldn’t be searched. Thirty seconds later, as I was crawling on my hands and knees through brush, I heard Steve yell that he had found the subject.

We called in our location and waited for the deputy to arrive and confirm that this was indeed the subject. Given our location, we concluded it would be extremely difficult to do a carryout with a stokes litter, so the deputy requested a helicopter. We made a clearing and had a chainsaw cut a path for us to use just in case we couldn’t get the helicopter.

I knew there was a chance a helicopter was coming, but I didn’t have any full coverage goggles. I had to improvise: I took my clear map bag and folded it in half. Then I put it on my face and kept it around my head with duct tape. People looked at me like I was crazy, but, it worked! It took a little while for the helicopter to find us. Then our team stepped aside and let the helicopter crew take over. Our work was done and it was time to go home.

It took awhile to get up to the road, but the path cut by the chainsaw definitely helped. We returned to the command post. All the other CoCo SAR teams were waiting for us. I almost couldn’t believe it had happened.

Looking back on that day, I realize how well CoCo SAR has trained us. We would never have found the subject if we were not trained so well. Everything we did was a skill we learned from the team. So I want to say… THANK YOU to everyone who has put in time and energy towards making our team so strong.

I also want to pass along some lessons I learned that day. First, always keep a bag with face-mask, earplugs, and full-coverage goggles for helicopters in your 24-hour pack. You never know when you’ll need it! (A pocket chainsaw would have also been useful.)

Second, keep something brightly colored attached to every piece of gear you use in the field. Steve dropped his GPS and would never have found it if it weren’t for a bright orange lanyard that was attached to it.

Third, NEVER doubt your assignment. I doubted ours and it ended up being the one. Remember, every assignment is important and that your assignment could play a key role in a successful mission.

Though I wish it could have been a different outcome, we were happy to help bring closure to the family. I would do it all over again if I had to, and I know that eventually I will. It could be in an hour, could be in 10 years. But we will always be there to help people in need. That’s why we’re here.