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April 15, 2024

Footprints in the Wilderness

By Wendy Robards

Lassen Volcanic National Park lies almost fifty miles due east of Redding, California. Its tallest peak rises 10,457 feet. Majestic cedars and pines spread their branches into the sky. Cougars, black bear, and hawks live in the shelter of the Park woods. In June, snow still dots Mt. Lassen's slopes and many roads remain closed to vehicles due to late spring storms. It is a rugged and beautiful place, and with attractions likes "Bumpus Hell" it draws hundreds of visitors each year.

On June 22, 2003 I am not thinking of the Park's beauty. Instead, I am standing on hot pavement at the Shasta County District Fair. My husband Kip and I are here together volunteering our time to raise money for our local search and rescue team. On this night, a murmur of a search in progress begins, and grows as the bright, hot day fades into a still, breezeless night. A tiny child, not yet four years old, is lost. As the hours tick by, tension among the Search and Rescue volunteers mounts. Why have we not been called out? This is not an uncommon frustration. Search and Rescue volunteers work for the Sheriff's department, who decides what resources should be used on a search. We have no power; no voice. In this case, the child is lost on Federal land and thus the search falls under the jurisdiction of the Park Rangers. They must ask for mutual aid from Shasta County before we can respond to the search. Kip and I also belong to yet another volunteer organization: The California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), the largest volunteer K9 Search and Rescue group in the United States. I power up my cell phone and call the CARDA dispatcher.

"Larry, have you heard of this search going on in Lassen?"

"I sure have. We're waiting on standby. No call out yet."

"Call me as soon as we get dispatched. I can be there in less than an hour."

I hang up, look at Kip, and shake my head.

An hour later, my CARDA pager finally goes off. It is 2300 hours and at last we have been deployed! Three minutes after that, Shasta County Search and Rescue is also requested. Kip and I will respond as CARDA members because we can only wear one uniform on a search, but we will work side by side with our Shasta County teammates. I call Larry back to tell him we are on our way home and can be at the search by 2400 hours.

"They don't want you until tomorrow morning," he says.

Another frustration. Dogs work best in cool conditions. Nighttime is the best time to work a Search and Rescue dog since temperatures are cool and scent tends to drift low to the ground as the air gets colder. We train our dogs in all conditions, including nighttime, and are equipped to be out at night in mountain terrain.

"Why are they waiting?" I ask.

"The search manager feels it's too dangerous for searchers."

Search managers are trained to put the lives of their searchers first. The old adage, "You can't help someone if you're injured" is a legitimate one. Search managers are forced to make many difficult decisions in the course of a search. They don't always make the right ones, but then again, they are the one's held responsible if something goes wrong.

Kip and I leave the fair and drive the half hour to our home in Shingletown. Shingletown sits at 3500 feet elevation. Lassen Park is at our back door, a mere twenty miles east on Route 44. Once home, we spend almost an hour checking our gear and loading the car. In the house my German Shepherd, Caribou, whines and paces. The sound of her bell, the gear clinking, and the slam of the car doors are all signs that we are preparing to go on a search. Just after midnight, we lie down and try to get some sleep. For a long time I lay on my back and stare at the ceiling, imagining a little girl alone in the dark woods of Lassen Park. When at last I fall asleep it is less than restful. The alarm goes off at 0400 hours and I slip out of bed without a look back. The air coming in through our open bedroom window causes goose bumps to rise on my skin. I wonder if the little girl was able to stay warm through the night. I know from training in survival classes that a night in the woods seems to last forever.

We drive East along highway 44 as the sky lightens ahead of us. We climb to more than 6000 feet and turn south onto Butte Lake Campground Road, a dirt road that meanders almost six miles to Butte Lake Campground: search base. Ahead of us three other four wheel drive vehicles bounce along the road, kicking up dust. We recognize the occupants as members of Shasta County Search and Rescue: the jeep patrol, the mountain monkeys, the mantrackers. To the Northwest a helicopter passes over the treetops. The thump, thump of its rotors is the only sound in the still morning air.

When we arrive at search base, I scan for familiar faces. I see other CARDA members with their dogs in tow. I recognize about half of the vehicles that line the road. Bumper stickers identify volunteers from Lassen, Plumas, Siskiyou and Tehama Counties. We pull into a vacant spot and kill the engine. The air is still cold, but warming as the sun climbs over the trees. We greet fellow searchers and ask if they have heard anything. I catalog the responses in my head: the little girl's name is Hanna; she's an independent kid and not likely to panic; a trailing dog picked up her scent heading Northwest from the campground; searchers found a possible boot print a half mile from camp. I let the woods talk to me. I breathe in the scent of the trees. If I was a little girl, where would I go? An almost overwhelming feeling of hopelessness falls over me. How are we going to find a child only three feet tall in all these woods? There are so many possibilities, so many places she could be. I take a deep breath and remind myself that I have trained thousands of hours and I am not alone. Eventually, more than seventy-five volunteer searchers gather at search base and wait for their assignments.

We are deployed at just past 0800 hours northwest of search base, into the area of the highest probability of a find. We are Dog Team Delta. I fasten Caribou's shabrack, a bright orange vest, around her body and snap on her orange collar. The sound of the bell dangling from her collar excites Caribou. She begins to whine and bark.

"Go search," I tell her and she bounds off into the woods, her dark body glistening in the sun.

We walk uphill in a westerly direction, crossing through heavy brush and climbing over downed trees with four foot diameter trunks. Caribou leaps these barriers as if they don't exist. Kip and I clamor over the tops of them more clumsily. The weather is pleasant. Birds sing and sunlight shines through the trees, dappling the ground. I begin to sweat, tiny rivulets trickling down my face. I watch my dog for any sign that she is getting scent. Caribou, an air scent dog, is trained to locate any human in the area by smelling human scent on the air currents. Her body language (a lifting of her nose or a rise of her tail) tells me when she first encounters human scent. She becomes more animated as she works closer to the missing person. An experienced handler notices these signs quickly and assesses the wind and terrain to determine from where the scent is coming. In this manner, the handler and dog work as a team to narrow the search and locate the lost person.

Caribou is working well, but not showing any signs of interest. Her dark body weaves through the trees. She ranges away from me for seventy to eighty feet and then loops back around me, checking in. We continue our westerly ascent until we hit the boundary of our assigned area. It is a boundary that is not apparent simply by looking at it. It is an arbitrary mark on the map and one we confirm with our GPS unit. I check the wind. It is coming from the East, up the hill. That and the warming temperature tells me that we need to traverse our western boundary North-South to maximize the chance that Caribou will pick up scent. With this search strategy, we should be able to cover the area below us in an efficient manner. We begin by heading north, following the contour of the hill. Suddenly I notice Caribou's nose rise into the wind. Her body tenses and she swoops down the hill, veering first to one side, then to the other, following an obvious human scent cone. Adrenaline rushes through my veins. I race down the hill behind my dog and yell, "Hanna!" Kip follows close on my heels.

Caribou disappears from sight and then quickly reappears, running up the hill toward me, ears forward. She slams into my leg and snatches the bringsel, an orange piece of cloth, from my belt. This is her trained alert that tells me she has located someone.

"Where?" I shout. "Show me!"

Caribou whirls from me and sprints away. I follow, sure that we have found Hanna. Disappointment floods over me when I see whom my dog has actually found. It is not Hanna, but instead another dog handler who is working an area adjacent to mine.

"Hey, Dick," I say while I reward my dog with her special tug toy.

We talk for a few minutes, discussing strategy, formulating a plan so that our paths don't cross again. He is heading Northwest; I decide to begin my grid South, just below my western boundary.

I redeploy Caribou and she begins her search pattern again. Search dogs are trained to find multiple subjects in one session for just this reason. Since air scent search dogs are not scent discriminating they will locate any person in the area. Many times they 'find' other searchers, are rewarded and then redeployed to continue searching for the next person. The dog doesn't care whom they find. They don't really know who is missing. For them the search is a game designed to get them a reward.

As we work South, my eyes are continuously scanning for clues. Hanna was wearing a pink shirt when she disappeared and I am looking for snatches of pink amongst the green foliage. We also look for track in the soft ground. Humans cannot pass through a forest, or any environment for that matter, without leaving sign of their passage: a broken stick, a scuff mark on a rock or a signature print of their shoe. Hanna, we have been told, is wearing Winnie-the-Pooh boots with the shape of an acorn and leaf imprinted on the bottom. It will be an easy boot print to identify if we see it.

We have only walked about 400 yards when I see Caribou once again lift her nose and begin to work into a scent cone. My mouth goes dry. I know I am the only dog team in this area and to my knowledge there are no other searchers below us. I watch where Caribou goes and see movement below her. I hear voices. This is not Hanna, either. Regardless, when Caribou comes back to alert, I accept her alert and allow her to take me into her newly found subjects, three mantrackers from Shasta County whom Kip and I know well.

Mantrackers are highly skilled at following human sign in a variety of environments. They are able to see what others miss and this makes them an invaluable asset on a search. Carl, one of the Shasta County mantrackers, holds the highest level of certification in this skill. He is a quiet man, not one to tell you how good he is at this art.

"What are you guys doing here?" I ask with a smile.

"We're going up further, to the West," Carl explains. He points to the ridge above us.

Kip and I decide to continue our search to the South and we toss back, "Good luck," as we walk away from the mantrackers. Ten minutes later, my radio crackles to life.

"We have a signature print and have located where she slept," Carl says. "We're following her track Southwest from our position." Carl gives their position using GPS coordinates.

I look at Kip. "They're less than a quarter mile above us and paralleling us," I say. "She must be right up there!" I point uphill into the dense woods.

The radio crackles again. "Okay, she's changed direction and is now heading Northwest."

"Let's sit down," I suggest. "This is all going to be over in less than ten minutes."

Kip agrees and we sit and wait, holding our breaths. I give Caribou water and rub her silky ears.

"We've got her!" Carl's voice is rough on the radio, a bit shaky. The emotion is clear through the static.

The search manager responds seconds later, "All teams return to base; subject has been located."

Elation and relief flood over me. We hurry back down the hill so that we can intercept the men carrying little Hanna out to safety. We meet up with them as we reach the road. Hanna sits in Carl's arms, one arm looped around his neck. Her blond hair shines in the sun. Her cheeks are reddened by sunburn, and scratches track their way up her thin legs. One tiny foot swings back and forth and gives the impression that the Winnie-the-Pooh decal on the side of her boot is dancing. Emotion floods over me. Hot tears well up and slip down my cheeks.

"Oh my God," I whisper, reaching for Kip's hand, "I can't believe she's okay."

The mantrackers' eyes also shine with tears. Hanna asks for a drink of water and wants to pat Caribou. She asks if she is going to see her mommy soon. She tells us she wasn't scared, alone in the woods, but she was a little cold. Oh yes, she heard the helicopters, they woke her up. She shows us the stick she found and carried with her on her adventure. We begin to walk on the road back toward the campground when I hear a woman shrieking Hanna's name.

"There's your mommy," I say.

A new flood of tears well in my eyes. I can't seem to swallow the lump that has formed in my throat. Hanna's mother races up to us, sobbing. She takes Hanna from Carl's arms and crushes the little girl to her chest. It is an intimate moment that makes me feel, for a second, like an intruder in their lives. I look away and wipe a dirty hand across my eyes. Other searchers and the rangers arrive. Everyone talks over each other. There are back slaps and grins between the tears. I step back and look at the scene, for a moment detached from it. Sunlight shines through the leaves, warm on my skin. Somewhere high up on the ridge a hawk screams out its eerie cry. I look at Kip, meet his gaze and smile.

Article © Wendy Robards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-04-16
2 Reader Comments
12:35:58 PM
Great story! I have heard about it. I now too know how it feels to be on a seach and hear that the subject has been found alive and well. There must be a reason I stumbled on this story. I'm a CARDA area handler from Shingletown.
Bobbie Bajda
08:09:37 PM
Dear Wendy, Your story brought tears to my eyes. Very well written,
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