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'They're on Front Line' : Search, Rescue Scouts Thrive in Northwest

September 21, 1989|SALLY-JO BOWMAN | The Christian Science Monitor

SPRINGFIELD, Ore. — The rugged, forested mountains of the Pacific Northwest beckon droves of hikers and hunters. When they get lost, the county sheriff doesn't call out the dogs -- he mobilizes an Explorer search-and-rescue post.

Washington and Oregon have 24 of the nation's 117 such Scout posts -- with nearly 30% of the 1,800 members.

The Northwest terrain makes the region a hotbed of good programs, said Forrest McVicar, associate director of the Boy Scouts of America Exploring Division.

Search-and-rescue Scouts -- ages 14 to 20 -- get a chance to learn outdoor skills and serve their communities in a very practical way, said Sgt. Gary Lewis of the sheriff's office in Lane County, Ore., who has advised Post 178 since 1977.

"They're on the front line," Lewis said. They may be on a mission overnight and may get called from school.

Student members have to maintain good grades, and they sometimes elect to give up other activities.

Skipped Concert

"We've had kids forgo a rock concert to go on a rescue," said John Pitetti, 38, an associate adviser who joined the post when he was 14. "And one skipped football practice and endured the wrath of the coach."

The point of the Explorer program is to learn about possible careers. Training in a search-and-rescue post is more hands-on than in most Explorer programs. Scouts get extensive practice using camping and communication skills, map and compass knowledge, and thorough search techniques. More important, they practice teamwork and leadership in situations in which their performance can have life-or-death consequences.

"We train outdoors October through March, when the weather is the worst," said Doug Caley, operations director of King County Explorer Search and Rescue in Seattle.

"And we do it in the Cascades, where the rainfall is more than double what it is in Seattle."

Search-and-rescue graduates often go into some phase of forestry or related fields, such as insurance safety, radio communications or paramedical service. Many continue as program advisers or community volunteers, such as Pitetti, who is also a volunteer scuba diver for the sheriff, or Caley, who joined the Boy Scouts at 11 and the Explorers at 14.

'Give Them Responsibility'

"Society mistrusts teen-agers," Caley said. "But when you give them responsibility like this, they live up to it."

Scouts on a mission--about 40% are female--are serious, whether they are searching for lost people or for evidence, or providing support for special professional search or rescue teams, such as the ski patrol or dog tracking units.

Lois Spencer is a good example. In 3 years, she has been on 36 missions.

One started at dawn on a Monday in September, 1987.

The call had come Sunday about 7 p.m.: Hiker last seen about half a mile up French Pete Creek, female, 28, retarded, lightly clothed. Had a fight with her boyfriend Saturday and tried to patch it up Sunday by going for a hike. The boyfriend went back to the car to get a camera and, when he returned, Charlotte was gone.

Or so he said. How big a fight was it? Why did he wait 9 hours to report her missing? And what about the 12 arrests and five convictions on his record?

Moved Slowly

Lois, 18, led a team of four up the trail slowly, so as not to miss any subtle sign. They only covered 1 1/2 miles in 2 hours.

Then, 50 feet from a footbridge, she saw a faint scratch in the dirt that looked like an arrow. Across the creek, a woman bent to get a drink. Lois crossed the bridge.

"Hello," she said. "What's your name?"

"Charlotte," the woman said, and she laughed and cried at the same time.

"I could just see the tension drain from her," Lois said. "Did I feel good! Each of our teams had a radio, and the posse was standing by."

Although new search-and-rescue Explorer posts invariably have to prove their abilities, once they have, they receive high praise.

Lt. Howard Kershner, the Lane County sheriff's officer who worked with Post 178 from the time it was formed in 1962 until he retired last year, would rather use Scouts than adult volunteers.

"You tell them to do something and they do it," he said. "We've had kids go through blackberry thickets 10 feet high. I can guarantee you that if they don't find something, it isn't there."

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