Headlights from an arriving search team lit up the area of the remote search and rescue (SAR) base camp. Those already at base stepped back from the table and took a moment’s break from the briefings concerning the area the night teams were searching. As the conversation continued, two eyes appeared from between two parked trucks. A pistol was automatically drawn. Base camp was twenty miles from the nearest town and over ten miles from an improved road. Deep in the foothills of the Southern Rockies, the area is known for mountain lions and coyotes, the latter sometimes rabid.
But a lowered head and a slight wag from a tail told the crew this was no coyote. A move by one of the crew startled the dog away a few feet, but she came back a moment later. Someone tossed her a cracker that she immediately wolfed down. She was thin and shivering from the chilly mountain air. The Incident Commander (IC) of the SAR mission brought a blanket from his truck and set it under a tree near camp. With another slight wag of the tail, the dog laid down. A cautious friendship unfolded. This scruffy mutt was officially adopting the SAR base camp.
As part of the team arriving at 0230 hours after a 200-mile trek through the mountains, I was greeted by the crew and the skinny dog with the wagging tail. I assumed she belonged to one of the crew, but they explained “she just showed up out of the dark.” The fresh sandwiches we had made a few hours earlier came to mind. We had been dispatched for the third 24-hour operational period, but I could survive that time without my share of the sandwiches. Turkey and cheese with mayo on whole wheat bread proved a welcomed snack for the girl. It was obvious she hadn’t eaten for a while. I suspected she was thirsty too. We had more than enough water to share and as an odd twist of fate; the incoming IC often took his dog with him and had a water dish in his truck. Two cups of water later the girl stopped drinking. It was obvious she’d been thirsty for a while as well. The night air was dropping into the
30’s. We found a fleece blanket and covered her more. The shivering eventually stopped, and safe deep sleep
The third operational period saw the sun rising over the mountains as a deep chill settled in for the early morning hours. The night trackers returned a bit after sunrise with reports of mountain lion tracks over the footprints of the ground-pounders who had scouted the day before. A large female with at least one cub: moving at a lope for at least a quarter mile. These guys were good. But with all this, there was no evidence of our lost person in that area. Our camp dog raised her head, gave a little bark of welcome and warning, and went back to sleep.
By 0800 hours the tracking dog and his handlers arrived. Once again a little bark of welcome and warning was sounded from our
camp dog. And then more sleep. By mid-morning she was well rested and woke up with considerable dog-day stretches. We started calling her Second Shifter and told her it was about time she got up for the day. She wagged her tail, said good morning to everyone, and received a dozen welcoming pats from the crew. Half a sandwich later, another few cups of water, and Second Shifter settled down beside the mapping table as if ready for her day’s assignment.
The day grew warmer as a local Sheriff and a few camp owners stopped by. One kind owner came back a later in the morning with a few cups of dog food. None knew Second Shifter, but she knew them. There were at base camp, they were her family. It was easy to see in the daylight that Second Shifter had recently had puppies. The Sheriff suspected she was a “res dog,” A breeding bitch that is dumped in the desert after her pups are weaned; a dog that has served her purpose and was now just target practice for a rouge hunter, or fodder for hungry coyotes or a mountain lion.
But the funny thing was, Second Shifter didn’t know she was a res-dog. She was a family dog, with good manners and a friendly demeanor. She was left by her family, so she went and found a new one. My heart sank a little as I wondered what would happen to her when the mission ended. My home was an eight hour jet ride away. Logistically, not an option. Maybe one of the base camp people could adopt her? Everyone thought she was wonderful, but no one could take her. “My wife says we already have too many strays” was one answer. I said I understood and found it kind that he had actually considered taking her home.
As a mounted SAR team arrived with their horses, our self-appointed camp mascot announced their arrival. The bloodhound team returned and was re-assigned with a ground team to re-scout an area where fresh blood had been found on a broken window. Our lost person had not been located, and the mission was most likely moving into recovery. We were sure of our narrowed area of interest. There was talk of suspending the mission for the night and picking it up in the morning; or maybe suspending it all together.
Our assignment for the third operational period was coming to an end. The fourth period IC had arrived and been briefed. Our truck was packed for the ride home, and command had been transferred. I took the last cup of dog food and asked the new IC if he’d give it to the pup before he left. He said he would. Second Shifter sat by our truck. I knew she was hoping we were her ride home. I took the last sandwich and tore it into pieces and tossed it around on her blanket, hoping it would distract her long enough for us to leave. I patted her goodbye, said a little prayer to the Gods of Good Homes, choked back tears, and said, “let’s get out of here now please.”
My IC said he was sorry. If I wanted, we could take her to the local shelter. But everyone knew the local shelters weren’t much better than her chances alone in the remote foothills. Maybe the mission would last another day. There was talk that a cadaver dog was available for the next day, and the search helicopter that had been detailed to another mission would be back and available as well. Maybe someone from the fourth operation would take her home.
The ride back to our county base was long but full of distractions. We got home just at dark and the warm dinner and drinks were much appreciated. With little more than a nap over the previous thirty-six hours, sleep came quickly that night. I added the skinny dog in the foothills to my prayer list, knowing I’d never forgive myself for leaving her there, but telling myself I’d done the best I could. I too had transferred command: Second Shifters fate was now in another’s hands.
The howl of nearby coyotes startled me awake a few hours later. My thoughts immediately went to Second Shifter. Was she OK? Had they suspended the mission? Was she there on her blanket waiting for them to return? Would they be back in the morning? In my mind coyotes were surrounding her. If her ending was due to the wilderness, I hoped it would be swift and painless.
The fourth day of the mission came and went with no word on its status. A message the next day reported the victim had been found by the helicopter crew, and sadly, he was deceased. We had been correct on the approximate location, which was a positive result in spite of the life lost. The IC closing out the mission would call in a few days to fill us in on other details. There was no mention of Second Shifter.
In the 1955 drama comedy “It’s A Dog’s Life” by Richard Harding Davis, a bull terrier chronicles his life story from the streets as a
Bowery Street castoff to a life of a Blueblood Pet. The actual bull terrier in the movie was named Wildfire. In a virtual remake, our 2013 version stars a Husky/Heeler cross castoff in the foothills of a wildfire regime. Humans lost in this hostile land don’t always survive. If the helicopters, horses, ground-pounders, ATV teams, bloodhounds or cadaver dogs don’t find you, a mountain lion or a next season’s hunter probably will. A dog lost in this regime may find a space to harbor for a while. Second Shifter was a lucky one.
The summary details arrived a few days later. They included a brief note. Not only had Second Shifter found a friendly base camp, during the fourth operational period, she found a place in a home that she could wiggle into. It began in the heart of cadaver dog handler who would care for her until he could rehome her. Little did he know at the time, his home would soon become her home. Two Border Collies waiting for his return also welcomed Second Shifter, her mission was ended, the transfer was complete. Newly named Kate was now forever safe – safe in the hands of the Gods of Good Homes.
A true story by Vicki Schmidt, Maine Fire Services Instructor. . . . while on a working vacation in New Mexico, September, 2013
The story does not stop there…
Nine years ago, I participated in a Search and Rescue (SAR) mission for a man whose car was found on a remote dirt road through the mountainous terrain outside of Alamo, N.M. It’s an isolated, rural community on the Navajo Reservation.
He had left his car and trudged partway up a steep mountainside before collapsing and dying. No one ever mentioned if he had a dog with him. The search took 2 1/2 days.
On the first night, Kate (a stray who’d just lost a litter) wandered into our search base camp, which included several cars, trucks, and a state police car. Searchers didn’t erect tents but slept in their vehicles or on the ground.
Kate wandered into the campsite, lean and hungry, where I gave her my border collie search dog’s food. Someone found a crate for her to sleep in.
When the search concluded the next afternoon, someone drove her to an animal shelter in Albuquerque. The next morning, I was there when they opened, met Kate again, and brought her home. She’s been a lovely friend and partner ever since.