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The Searchers

Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue marks 50 years of finding others


Some days, you're repelling down a cliff and others, you're up to your elbows in ears of hot buttered corn.

Such is the life of Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit, the all-volunteer group that, for the last 50 years, has been where law enforcement departments turn for help finding the cold, tired and lost in Idaho's backcountry. Whenever the call comes, the team is ready to scramble.

"People volunteer to buy their own equipment and show up at ungodly hours to come help someone else," said search manager George Gunn, who joined the group in 1973.

"You're away from your families. You miss dinners, holidays, anniversaries," added president Jerry Newland, an 11-year veteran.

Sitting around an old table in the make-shift conference room down a narrow, twisting hallway from the garage where the team stores its gear, Gunn's wife, Charlotte, smiled a little as she recalled the times the couple has had to politely excuse themselves from a dinner party.

Volunteers come from all walks of life--teachers, retired military, business owners, tech workers, public servants--but all are willing to sacrifice their time to help strangers who are lost, injured or otherwise vulnerable.

"There's no common denominator," Gunn said, adding that for many volunteers, helping with a rescue means taking a vacation day or going unpaid.

"We know that there are people who are having to really make sacrifices to be able to participate, but I never hear anybody complain about it," he said.

Already this fall, the team has been called to help locate several missing hunters. Just two weeks ago, searchers were near Sage Hen Reservoir in Gem County looking for one. Gunn carefully calls the hunter "missing" rather than "lost," pointing out "the guy knew where he was," with a laugh.

Search and rescue volunteers are reticent to talk about more than the facts of their work. The group's newsletters are filled with by-the-book accounts of the team heading out on dirt tracks--graciously called roads--to bushwhack in unappealing weather to help someone.

"It really is a low-profile kind of group," Gunn said. "There's very little about 'this person found them.' It's 'we did this,'" he said. "Those people whose egos thrive on being really important are really kind of frustrated."

Over the last half century, Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue has grown from a few local ski patrollers, to a roster of roughly 60 volunteers. They spend nearly twice as many hours training as searching. Last year alone, they logged more than 4,000 training hours, compared to just more than 2,000 hours in the field.

"It's just a lot of hard work that goes into it," George said. "It's that barn-raising, pioneering kind of spirit. [Volunteers] set their own needs aside for a chance to help someone else."

Gunn and Charlotte started search and rescue work while in Colorado and when they were "climbing with things you see in a museum," Charlotte said. Since moving to Idaho in 1973, they have been at the heart of the group--eventually training search dogs and becoming certified man trackers.

Kris Scovel laughs about her status as a trained man tracker, considering she met her husband, Dan Scovel, when they both joined eight years ago. Kris had been looking for a place to volunteer after her children left home. She met a search-dog trainer who encouraged her to check out a meeting, and by that weekend, she was training.

Over the years, the frequency of calls hasn't changed, but the timing and type have. Now, rescue calls are spread across the year, rather than lumped in the winter. Increasingly, the group is seeing people depending on technology to get out of trouble, taking cell phones and GPS units instead of a daypack with an emergency kit, only to find there is no cell service in much of Idaho's wilderness.

The specifics of the rescue requests vary, with some law enforcement departments asking for search teams or people with tactical expertise, while an increasing number are tapping the group's organizational expertise. The unit recently created its own mobile command unit inside a trailer customized with computers, work stations and an integrated communications system.

Those skills were recently called on by the Boise Police Department for help coordinating volunteer searchers in the Robert Manwill case.

Last year, Search and Rescue was called out 33 times. To this day, the unit is the only standalone search and rescue group in the state.

While this means some freedom, it also means the team is on its own to come up with the roughly $36,000-$38,000 it takes to run the group each year--services that would otherwise cost individual counties $1.5 million each year. To supplement any donations and the dues volunteers pay, they depend on various fundraisers, including wrapping gifts during the holidays at Cabella's and the annual corn on the cob booth at the Western Idaho Fair. Last year, the crew went through roughly 12,500 ears of corn.

One source for funds that will never be tapped is the individuals the group helps: it never charges for services.

And while accomplishments are a team effort, the benefits for volunteers are personal. Two types of calls stand out in Gunn's mind. First, those requiring extraordinary teamwork and logistics; second, the ones in which a life would have been lost without their help. Those dramatic life or death missions are few compared to the majority of missions, but in this case, it's a matter of quality over quantity.

"You don't need many of those [missions] over the years to keep you going," he said.