An early morning inversion settled deep into the valley between the clouds and the dull color of snow reflecting a sunless sky above. The snow beneath had softened in the previous afternoon and then frozen again at night before another thin layer of precipitation covered the dense desert brush. The only building in sight was a windowless shack some half-mile away. Except for the occasional voices of the two search and rescue volunteers, the only sound was the rhythmic crunch of hard snow.
"If this were a real search, we'd just follow the tracks," says Linda Kearney, pointing to the line of human footprints she and Charlotte Gunn found trailing through the snow. Using the ruler on her hiking stick, Kearney bent down to measure the stride. "The track will tell you everything."
But the day's training session wasn't a tracking exercise. Rather it had been set up to put Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit's canines to the test. While Kearney studied the nuances of the "victim's" track as it veered off the snowy road and shortened, Gunn sent Xena, her German shepherd, to search for the mock victim by smelling for scents borne aloft. Xena wandered through the frozen brush with her nose in the air, searching for the smell of a human. Without a breeze, it was difficult for the dog to pick up anything in the air, and she stayed close to Gunn. At almost 8 years old, Xena's sense of smell is so well-honed that she's trained to not only seek out humans through a search of the air's scents, but can also find bodies underwater.
Xena suddenly caught a scent and bolted off into the snow. She disappeared for a moment and then returned to sit at Gunn's feet. When Xena has found a human, explained the women, she gives an alarm. It's a signal each rescue dog gives to its handler to communicate that there's a human nearby. Xena's alarm signal is to return to sit by Gunn's feet.
Kim Juda, a new recruit to Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue, is the "victim" Xena found surrounded by snow and sagebrush. As reward for a job well-done, Xena played with her favorite toy before walking back to base camp, where another mock mission was underway for a missing couple.
The search for Juda ended predictably in successful rescue. But on real missions, few endings are as definitive as these practice exercises. Although it was 20 years ago, Kearney remembers her first mission well. Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue never found the woman they were searching for that day. Gunn, a retired schoolteacher who's been a volunteer with Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue since 1973, says there isn't one in her memory that stands out.
"There have been a lot of really frustrating searches," she says. "There have been a lot of really rewarding ones, too, and several sad ones where we've found the person dead."
In Idaho, the sheriff's office is responsible for search and rescue with few exceptions, including those searches that take place within city limits. Most search and rescue units in Idaho are directly associated with a county sheriff's office. According to Gunn, Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue is sponsored by the Boise County Sheriff's Department, but it's an independent unit. Based out of Boise, Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue is sponsored by Boise County simply because its volunteers spend a good deal of search time there.
"Boise County doesn't have the financial resources to really fund their own operation. They don't have the tax base," says Gunn. "But it's fair because most of the people who get in trouble in Boise County are from down here in the valley and we have to go out and find them."
It's a partnership that's been in place through several Boise County sheriffs, and Gunn says not only does she feel like Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue is providing a needed service but also that the unit is doing as much good for the Boise County sheriff's department as she thinks it is.
According to Boise County Sheriff Ben Roeber, it is.
"They are a huge asset to Boise County. They handle all the major search and rescues, they're very professional, they have great training, and they're just a great resource for a small county like us," says Sheriff Roeber. "And they come at the drop of a hat."
And they do it all on their own dime and their own time. Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue is an all-volunteer unit with a pay-to-play policy. In other words, Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue's members give their time, effort and equipment whenever their expertise is requested by an official agency, and they have to pay annual dues for the privilege.
When the group needs to bring in the heavy equipment like helicopters, planes or snowmobiles to get the job done, they rely on the generosity of similar organizations to donate their time to the effort or to cut them a deal. Even the most basic search and rescue operations cost money. Under Idaho law, says Gunn, the sheriff's office, ski area or other agency that had to undertake a search can charge the rescued if they purposely and/or recklessly endangered themselves. Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue, however, never bills anybody for anything, says Gunn.
To pay for things like snowmobiles, ATVs, helicopters, airplanes or gas that are required on a search, volunteers spend even more of their personal time fundraising. They sell corn at the Western Idaho Fair. They gift wrap at Cabela's over the holidays. They rely on members' dues, and they keep their fingers crossed for large donations.
Gunn says it's exhausting work year-round to keep members trained, keep the organization funded and then drop everything to head into the snow, the brush or the forest in search of someone who may have returned safely while search and rescue volunteers were scouring the wilderness.
"We've got to get some emotional satisfaction out of it, or we wouldn't do it," says Gunn. "Some people find out that it is a lot more work and a lot less glory than they see on TV or written in the newspaper, so they don't stay very long. But others just find it's really satisfying to do."
Kearney says that for her, the high of being part of finding someone is what keeps her going through the more difficult searches.
"The really exciting ones are few and far between," admits Gunn. "Sometimes [a mission is] just a good tramp through brush. But if you're one of the people who was personally involved in knowing that you've saved somebody's life, that'll take you a long way."
As the day's training exercise wore on, two of the three mock victims were found fairly quickly. The third was still hunkered down in the freezing temperatures somewhere, waiting for a rescue team to find him. Although he'd been in the snow for several hours, the good news was that he was equipped with warm clothes, a mat and liquids, and most importantly, he wasn't really lost. Had he been ill-prepared or truly in need of rescue, the biting cold would have been not just uncomfortable but life-threatening.
Gunn says the one thing that Sheriff Roeber and all of Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue's volunteers reiterate again and again: "It can happen to you. A lot of people assume that if you're stuck, you just call someone on a cell phone and a helicopter will pick you up. That's not realistic."
Even if you're sure it won't happen to you, she says, be prepared for everything, just in case.