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Ground Search and Rescue


By MARINA SACHT

Recently Ladysmith Search and Rescue (LSAR) volunteers were recognized by the RCMP for their search and rescue of a 66-year-old woman who went missing in the Copper Canyon wilderness area this summer. The woman was lost for several days and searchers weren’t able to locate her position until they received a tip from a person out on a motorbike, who spotted a car in the ditch.

She was located after 21 hours of intense search. The female was found in critical condition and lying far from the car, just off the side of the road. They administered first aid, and she was airlifted to Nanaimo General Hospital and recovered.

“When I look back on the situation, it was very emotional for a lot of us,” says Allen McDermid, president of LSAR. “Her family was at the search site when they heard word that we had found her. Just the feeling … I can’t describe the emotions that were going around at the time. That’s what we do — we train to find people. We’re there to help people at their time of need.”

McDermid says not many people know about the group even though it has been around for over 50 years.

“Some members have been with us for over 50 years, and quite a few have been here for 25 to 35 years. We have a great age variance from about 19 years old up to 70 years old. A lot of people don’t realize we are ground search and rescue,” says McDermid. However, that role has expanded the last two years with the addition of a swift water team to cover inland rivers and lakes.

“I sit with some of the members of the group in their 16-foot command centre. The trailer doubles as a field office during call-outs. It’s an impressive office with multiple work stations, and state-of-the-art search and rescue equipment. Equally impressive is that this was all put together by volunteers,” says Dan Marble, vice-president. The command centre allows them to hold two separate operations simultaneously.

Rob Kirkland, team leader, is on the front line. During searches, he is one of the team leaders who is in the bush. With over 36 years of experience, he trains members offering invaluable insight.

He says members are always needed, but be prepared to make a commitment. Training takes 100 hours over six months. You will also need a certain level of fitness. “You may be called upon to pack a 200-pound person on the stretcher through really thick bush, over creeks and through swamps, and it’s usually in the pouring rain in the dark,” says Kirkland.

While the commitment is huge, the benefits are many.

“It’s for people who like the outdoors, and it’s a way of giving back to the community.” After completing their training, members find themselves much more comfortable going into the bush, especially women.

“I teach them how to use a GPS, a compass, how to read a map and outdoor skills, such as how to light a fire or build a shelter.” The group currently has six women members.

For Kirkland, his satisfaction comes from being able to help someone. Like the time some salal pickers called to say their 14-year-old was missing in the bush, and it was dark. “ That feeling of saving some young kid is totally awesome. It definitely stays with you.”

Mario Gauvin, LSAR search manager, says, “People get in trouble around Heart Lake, Stocking Lake, even the Holland Creek Trail. And then there are people who go for a drive up a logging road without any thought as to where they’re going, they get lost, or put their vehicles in the ditch, and then we get the call because they realize they’re not getting out without help. The hitch is that once you get past that first mountain, you will probably have no cell contact.”

“The last two years, we really put in an effort to bring our equipment up-to-date and get what is needed by the ground search and swift water team,” says Marble.

Everything you see is either donated or fundraised. For many years, the members used their own stuff. Gauvin says that if they don’t have it, they look to other groups. He found three snowmobiles a few years ago through the Nanaimo Snowmobile Club in a search for five youth who’d got into serious trouble. They had gone out in their four by four in 3 feet of snow and ran out of gas. It happened on a Monday evening, so they decided to spend the night where they were. The next morning one of the kids walked 17 km to a house to call his dad to come with extra gas. There was too much snow and the dad couldn’t make it, so he called the fire department, and they couldn’t make it either. “By the time we got called it was late Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.”

The youths were hungry and cold, they were not dressed for the environment. The two girls in the group decided to walk out around 6:00 p.m. They had walked about 10 km and it was 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. when they were found. “They were laying in the snow. In the first stage of hypothermia, you are cold; second stage, you stop shivering; and then you start to get warm — that’s pretty close to non-return — and those girls were warm, they were laying down in the snow just to take a rest. That would’ve been the end of it for them.”

When the searchers picked up the rest of the teenagers, they had decided to warm up by burning plastic and anything they could find inside the vehicle, so that would’ve been a dead end for them as well.

“A fun trip can quickly turn deadly when you are in the back-country. Treat it with respect. Tell someone where you’re going and how long you’re going to be there. Wear proper footwear and clothing because when you are in the mountains, it’s not the same as being down here. It is far colder and wetter, and once you get wet you have a hard time staying warm,” says Kirkland.

Pack spare clothing in your back pack, a toque, gloves, and especially dry socks. And you should have a way to light a fire. “It’s not easy to light fires around here. There are great products out there, like fire-starters, that can help.”

“We are a growing organization,” says McDermid, “and we’re looking for new people.” Even if you’re not super fit you can lend a hand with other tasks to support these hard-working volunteers. For more information ladysmithsearchandrescue [at] gmail [dot] ca of facebook: Ladysmith SAR.

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