It’s not usual for dogs to attend a book launch, but that’s exactly what happens when Cathalynn Labonte-Smith makes promotional appearances for her new book, Rescue Me-Behind the Scenes of Search and Rescue (Caitlin Press). The dogs (especially canine Echo who has been immortalized in a toy that is sold to raise funds) are specially trained in searching for missing persons and are the stars of the show at a book launch.
However, the real stars are the humans of the search and rescue (SAR) teams who volunteer their time to trek out, night and day, into dangerous mountain or forest situations to find missing, injured or other outdoor adventurers who have been trapped in a cave, fallen through the ice or down a ravine, or simply become lost in their hike. Surprisingly even experienced, well-equipped hikers can easily become lost when they step off the trail.
Labonte-Smith presents 69 such cases with interviews from representatives of SAR teams across North America. The stories are told in an abbreviated transcript style that reveals much about the bravery of the individuals. She asks her interviewees for their memories of the tough rescues or of the satisfying ones, and in the process she explodes the myth that this job is glamorous. In fact, it’s not even a job—most of the teams are dedicated volunteers who love the outdoors and are often working with limited resources. Nonetheless they might save your life some day.
For example, the state of Colorado, with its many mountains, has 28,000 rescue volunteers who respond to 3,600 callouts in a year. That’s not unusual. In B.C., the local SAR teams found that their role increased during the pandemic as many people sought recreation in the wilds.
Sadly, sometimes the SAR teams are searching for the remains of the lost person, very often someone who was unprepared for the weather or rugged conditions. The bodies are recovered so that their families can find closure.
“Your first recovery call usually sticks,” said Sue Duxbury of the Sunshine Coast SAR. In her case it was a teen trying to climb a rock face who dropped to the swift water below and was swept away. He drowned and the team recovered his body with difficulty.
Richard “Richy” Till, a local SAR veteran of 25 years, tells of the efforts to coordinate various agency teams in the wake of an airplane crash on Thormanby Island. The lone crash survivor describes his harrowing experience in the book.
For all the successful rescues, there are always a few that fail. One case that took place near Sechelt remains unsolved to this day. Rhody Lake disappeared in 2005. She was last seen at Porpoise Bay Park but an extensive search turned up nothing. Labonte-Smith records an interview in 2022 with two of the participants: Rhody Lake’s daughter and the president of the Sunshine Coast SAR, Alec Tebbutt. The search is recounted in detail, and all involved still hope for a resolution.
Labonte-Smith lives in Gibsons and her husband Stephen Smith is a new member of SCSAR. She will be speaking again on Dec. 19, 3 to 5 p.m. at Sechelt Library in a fundraiser for SCSAR.
Dog handler Joyce Tattersall and her two SAR dogs, Echo and Zulu, will attend – as long as duty doesn’t call them away.
– This story was initially published under an incorrect byline. Sorry for the confusion.