Maine is the most heavily-forested state in the U.S., and is considered to have the oldest population, on average. Obviously Maine is a largely rural state, with extensive geographic areas falling under the purview of public safety agencies which may have very limited staff (for example, county sheriff's departments). Cellular telephone and internet coverage is unreliable at best in some places, and even in more heavily-populated southern Maine, it's not hard to find your way into a big piece of woods. Needless to say, winter is long, water is everywhere, and the options for getting cold, wet, and in trouble are many. If you live in Maine, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.
Mainers like outdoor recreation. Many of us enjoy the feeling of being all alone in the woods. That is, until we realize we don't know how to find our way back. Then, we start swearing. Some folks know what to do next. Some don't.
We hear and read news stories with some frequency about lost people, and such reports make us all worry. Once somebody's case makes the local news, we know they've been out there for too long. Several of the lost-person stories recently have ended in tragedy, but we can take some comfort in knowing that a lot of people are found before the story ever gets to the media. Sometimes it's a small child who toddles out of sight and needs help to be found, or perhaps it's an elderly person with dementia or other health issues wandering away from home, or even a healthy young individual disappearing for no obvious reason.
Notice that I did not use the common expression "disappearing without a trace." It is actually not so common that somebody disappears "without a trace." Usually, if you know how to look for it, there is some sort of trace. It just may take a lot of effort to find it.
In the State of Maine, the job of planning, organizing, and conducting searches for lost people under most circumstances belongs to the game wardens. Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Warden Service Lieutenant Kevin Adam is Maine's Search and Rescue expert. It falls to Lt. Adam to decide how a search will proceed. Can the wardens, perhaps with local police or other nearby first-responder agencies do it alone? You might be surprised to learn that very often, they can. Are more resources needed, and if so, which specific resources can be accessed quickly and will be most useful? Aircraft, divers, specialized dog teams, mounted searchers on horseback, and teams of trained search and rescue volunteers who work the deep woods, mountain trails, back roads, and riversides on foot are among the help available.
A trained SAR volunteer is an asset to the wardens and to the whole effort, but he or she is also something else: not a liability. This is important; lots of people might be willing to go stomp around in the woods to help find Grampa, but without teamwork, organization, and compliance with a plan; without land navigation skills and a compass; without supplies for safety; without at least some knowledge of evidence preservation and the psychology of lost persons, and without an understanding that they need to search where they are supposed to search, a whole bunch of extra people on the scene can actually make the search effort harder.
Very frequently, the dogs are the search heroes, as their specialized training and excellent sense of smell can accomplish what no human can hope to do. However, random people bushwhacking around the area might complicate the dog's job. It is also essential to be able to say with certainty that such-and-such an area has been thoroughly searched, so that resources and people can be, in good conscience, utilized elsewhere. This requires that searchers be well-organized and follow instructions and use maps--and not just be individuals out walking aimlessly in the woods. Important clues are easily enough missed by trained searchers because of difficult conditions; people without any experience in clue-finding may have little chance of doing much good, and evidence can easily be accidentally destroyed.
There is also the real chance that a searcher can become separated from their group, or get injured, far from the trailhead, parking area, or command base. Trained SAR volunteers always carry gear and supplies to manage their own safety and reasonable comfort, including food and water. They practice map and compass skills, dress for potentially long periods outdoors, and have at least rudimentary first aid training (and sometimes more medical expertise). Many are avid hunters, hikers, or outdoor-sports enthusiasts, and all are physically fit enough to spend the whole day on their feet.
It can be a very long day.
Earlier this month, roughly 100 of those volunteers, including equine team members and dog handlers, assembled at Camp Jordan in Ellsworth for the Maine Association for Search and Rescue annual training weekend. SAR volunteers attended sessions on such topics as lightning safety; working with persons with autism; how to safely assist in a technical/high angle ropes rescue; back-country first aid; dangerous street drug recognition; a refresher on compass navigation; building an improvised temporary shelter; and, how to work with and around horses.
In addition to events like this statewide gathering, local SAR teams host training at their regular meetings and sometimes as needed for their team members. Teams of various sizes are located around the state, some of which specialize in the use of particular techniques or equipment. If you are interested in Search and Rescue in Maine, contact the Maine Association for Search and Rescue online. Your county Emergency Management office can also direct you to the local SAR team contact.
An important tip for everybody, from the SAR community: If you are headed into the woods, never rely exclusively on electronics for navigation or for emergency help. Even if you are remaining near civilization, where cell signal is strong, things can happen. Batteries run out, satellites aren't always just right, and you can always damage or lose your device. A cell phone and a handheld GPS are good tools, but electronics should never be your only tools.
Before heading out, let someone know where you are going and when you are expected back, and learn how to use a map and compass. Bring water and something to eat, and think about what you'd do if you got wet or hurt. If you do find yourself "turned around," admit it. Make yourself BIG! Stay in one place when it is safe to do so, get out in the open, and take steps to make yourself obvious. Above all, stay calm. Do what you can to make yourself warm and comfortable. As one of the guys from Waldo County SAR emphasized during the training weekend, "Survival is a mindset!"
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus
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