On a recent summer night, when members of JOSAR (Joshua Tree Search and Rescue) finished work or completed their day, they met at the Lost Horse Ranger Station in Joshua Tree National Park, where they gathered to begin their search and rescue mission. The volunteers gather regularly, but it is not always a search, many are training sessions. This night the team was searching for a man who had left his car and disappeared a couple of days earlier.
Most Search and Rescue in the National Park is done by the park staff, but about 35 years ago a group of experienced climbers offered their help. After a time that group fell away. Eighteen years ago, Dave Pylman, Phil Spinelli, and Byron Cook created a new JOSAR, a highly trained Volunteer Search and Rescue organization that is overseen by park staff but are trained and certified themselves to national standards.
JOSAR currently consists of 38 diverse volunteers including a Marine contractor, a behavioral therapist, a semi-retired geologist, a part-time pilot, an octogenarian rock climber, an IT specialist in a law firm, and a loan specialist in a Harley Davidson Shop. The age range is from 20 to 82. Every one of them has a love of nature, a desire for physical activity and a desire to give back to their community.
Today JOSAR is divided into several teams, of which, members can choose to be in all or one. The teams include “Technical” which performs wilderness high angle rope rescues in areas that are not easily accessible. Training for this team includes knots, ropes, pulleys and climbing to heights. The “Search” team is called in when someone is lost. Training involves the use of a compass, GPS devices, radios, and search techniques. “Tracking” identifies the path of a missing person and follows them through any terrain.
The last team is the Canine Search and Rescue, which is relatively new to the park.
Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewel, congratulated the Park on having the first national dog team.
On this night, the dog teams gathered at the Lost Horse Ranger Station. After a briefing and equipped with designated GPS coordinates and radios, owners and dogs spread out to begin their search. I traveled with Kirk and Alice Waltermire, their three dogs, Montana, a Border Collie, and Ziva and Abbey, both Blood Hounds. Jamie Bustamante and his German Shepard, Titian rode with us. Bustamante was in charge of the radio. This effort was a continuation of an actual search which began the weekend before. There was an on-going comprehensive search for the man, Michael, since his vehicle, abandoned in the park for two days was discovered.
It was a beautiful summer evening. The wind was perfect for the dogs to pick up a scent and it was just cool enough for them not to be stressed by the heat.
Dogs, scenting microscopic skin cells that people shed all day, will use more than one style of scent work to find the missing person. Dogs are trained for air scenting and ground scenting.
Alice and Kirk began training for dog rescue about three and half years ago after Alice experienced a life-changing health crisis. The Waltermires bought a new van and are outfitting it to accommodate roomy cages for the dogs, necessary equipment, first aid and even provide sleeping accommodations during extended trips for additional training.
During the search, Bustamante checked the coordinates he had been given and radioed the team to check in. Alice placed the GPS collar on Montana – a new purchase about the size of a pocket knife, and attached a bell and light that she uses for night searches. Bustamante called out the parameters as we walked. The sound of the radio crackled, the wind hissed. It was perfect weather for Montana to pick up a scent if there was one. She was the best-trained dog for that evening’s search. Everyone had a job to do – looking for any sign that Michael had been in the area. We found nothing.
Around 8:00 just as it was getting dark and we had walked to the end of our search area, we noticed two cabins. They were on private property but not far from the California Riding and Hiking Trail.
“It is a place someone might try to get to,” everyone agreed, and we made our way to the isolated structures. Alice called out for anyone around and announced we were Search and Rescue. There was no answer. Montana, certified and trained for finding both live and deceased people, did not come up on the porch but circled the house intently, stopping by Alice now and again to check in and sometimes get a drink of water.
The Search and Rescue dogs are well cared for. There are time limits on how long they can work, their accommodations are the best possible and when they are not working, The Waltermires and Bustamante board their animals daily at the Blue Barn Ranch where the dogs have the freedom to run, play and practice their skills.
Full Canine Search and Rescue training can be anywhere from 6 months to a year depending on how many hours the trainer is willing to invest.
A well trained SAR dog can maneuver with grace in the most difficult of terrain while looking for a trapped or hidden person. Bustamante’s dog Titan is being trained for tracking. Bustamante proudly showed me photos of Titan climbing around the rocks in the park and being lowered down a hole by a rope. The photos were taken during a training exercise, and the dog did well.
Search and Rescue work requires an immense amount from the dog: intelligence, agility, stamina, drive, work ethic, confidence, and the ability to listen and respond to the handler. Not every dog is well suited to this task. There is also a lot of time and effort required from the dog’s owners.
“A new volunteer should hang out with the dog team for at least six months,” said Alice, “It’s a lot of commitment. A lot of people don’t understand how much you give.”
Kirk Waltermire said when he was training his dog, Abby, he had to keep playing with her continuously and stretching the limits of their game to improve her skills and his.
“You have to keep playing with them,” Kirk said, “to keep them sharp. And keep ourselves sharp.”
Alice added, “You have to know your Dog and how to read your dog.”
At the cabins, we did find a footprint and abandoned beer bottles. Alice picked up the trash and put it in her knapsack to discard later. She marked and noted the coordinates of the print. This detail would be recounted later during debriefing.
Nothing else was found that night. The next day, the trackers observed a carrion bird flying over a nearby ridge. It did not circle, so its position was noted and recorded, but there was nothing else to be done.
There has only been one other case of a missing person that was never located. That was five years ago. “No closure,” is a difficult thing for the volunteers as they imagine what the family must be feeling.
It is important to add that the park has very stringent rules about dogs in the park. When the Rescue dogs aren’t working, they follow the rules. They are kept on a leash and do not go into the more sensitive areas. When they are working it is a joy to observe them doing their job.
All of the SAR volunteers (people and animals) are highly dedicated. We are all a lot safer for their commitment.