BOISE, Idaho — The Greenbelt is a user-friendly asphalt path for joggers and bicyclists here, but the Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit found it an urban jungle while it searched for a slain flight attendant.
The volunteer group quickly mobilized in late September, equipped with tracking dogs, kayaks to negotiate the Boise River and thousands of hours' worth of training time and experience.
Although it's not their usual turf, search-and-rescue groups are increasingly asked to track down lost people, such as murder victims and Alzheimer's patients, in towns. That's in addition to hunting for burgeoning numbers of back-country skiers, snowmobilers, rafters and others who disappear.
"We've had to become more diverse because our searches became more diverse," said Leslie Robertson of the 60-member rescue group. "With the advent of the global positioning system, we get fewer lost hunters. But we're getting more lost snowmobilers, drownings and other cases. We've had to expand and modify our training."
United flight attendant Lynn Henneman, 38, was last seen Sept. 24 at her hotel next to the river. Police spent weeks looking for her, relying on Idaho Mountain Search members and their dogs.
"Any time--especially when we get into remote locations like the foothills, river or desert--the unit becomes a major asset for us," Boise Police Lt. Jim Tibbs said.
A trailing dog is trained to find a lost person through his or her scent, often through an item of clothing. An air-scenting dog sniffs the wind for people in general, as in the case of a lost hunter alone in a large landscape. And a cadaver dog specializes in hunting for bodies.
The dogs are trained with search-oriented games from the time they are puppies, said dog handler Charlotte Gunn of Idaho Mountain Search. They must be high energy and have the innate ability to track.
Although the Greenbelt is a narrow corridor stretching through the city, it still involves big stretches of stream-side property. It includes islands, bogs, multiple side trails and transient camps. There is lots of debris hidden in heavy vegetation to lead the dogs astray.
"When you start to search, you quickly realize how much area is beside the trail," Gunn said. "And anyone whose casual wardrobe needs replenishing can choose from an assortment of jeans, sweats, T-shirts, socks and unmentionables."
Volunteers also cruised the river in kayaks and rafts to check the side channels.
Ultimately, a fisherman spotted Henneman's body under a log in the river. Her purse was found in east Boise, not on the Greenbelt.
The rescue group did not find Henneman's body because the cadaver dog was not assigned to that stretch of the river, Robertson said. The dog did identify where the body was located after the fact. Idaho Mountain Search then put in more hours looking for clues at the crime scene. No suspects' names have been released.
The search-and-rescue organization was formed several decades ago, primarily to find sportsmen lost in the extensive forests and desert of southwestern Idaho.
"Our mission statement says it's wilderness safety. We take over when the road ends," Robertson said.
They still get plenty of that. As the volunteers looked for Henneman, one was called to help find a lost hunter among the thick deadfall in the Boise National Forest. Fortunately, the teenager was spotted quickly.
Late last month, Idaho Mountain Search ventured into Hells Canyon for an Idaho Power Co. biologist and pilot believed to have crashed in the vast gorge. The searchers carry equipment to stay out in the field for days and are trained in climbing skills in the event they must rappel to an injured person.
"We're also trained to observe and document it all for later," Robertson said. "We're very unusual in not working with just one sheriff's office. We go where we're needed."
As the West's population grows, the number of people headed into the woods increases and so does the number of emergency calls, Gunn said.
Snowmobilers are venturing farther afield because their machines are lighter and more powerful and can navigate through deeper snow. Thousands of enthusiasts are buying back-country skis to explore beyond groomed ski runs.
Waiting too long to notify authorities about a lost individual can turn a rescue into a tragedy. Idaho Mountain Search wants friends and relatives to call sooner rather than later, Robertson said.
The volunteers have myriad strengths to offer the organization, but they can choose whether to do such activities as dangling from a rappelling rope or hunting for a body, she said.
"We all have different skills, different ways of coping," she said. "We stress everybody has the ability to say no."