Blue Ridge Parkway Search and Rescue Exercise 2019
Boy, that was fun. I’m just getting back from a search and rescue exercise (SAREX) that I participated in as a prospective member of the Search and Rescue Tracking Institute (SARTI). Having operated as a flanker on a canine search team during the previous two years, I decided to take a look at another avenue of interest I’ve had for a while but haven’t had the opportunity to look further into: tracking. I learned about SARTI at the Virginia SAR Conference I attended a few weeks ago and decided to take advantage of their upcoming training session to become better educated on the subject.
Tracking is the ancient art of finding a track, whether it be a human or non-human, and be able to not only identify it but also follow it. (There is probably a better definition, and if I find one I’ll fix this, but this is what I’ve got off the top of my head.) So imagine you’re walking down the side of the road, across a park, or maybe around your yard. Every step you make is leaving a trace that you were there. Trackers can detect those traces and make sense out of that data.
I’ve now seen trackers work twice and it is amazing to me. At first you don’t see anything. Then they will point out the smallest detail: a broken twig, several rocks pushed up, or, the obvious, a shoe print. That is the start of what becomes the slowest adventure ever. A path starts to form and clues materialize. You now have data that can be used to rule out or confirm other clues that are found by other teams and narrow down the areas that need to be searched.
The SAREX was the 21st Annual Blue Ridge Search and Rescue Exercise hosted by the National Park Service (NPS). Taking place at the Rocky Knob Recreation Area, the landscape has everything from rolling hills, to steep mountains, to the gorge with its babbling stream and waterfalls, and, of course, the trails running throughout. It’s the perfect place for someone to get lost, accidentally or otherwise.
Our missing subject was an 82yo man, Delmer, who liked to go wander in the woods and look at plants. He was known to walk with a shuffle and use a walking stick when he went into the woods. His vehicle had been discovered at a parking area near the Rocky Knob cabins, parked illegally, and subsequently towed. There had been a report of seeing a person matching Delmer’s description walking up Rock Church Road, from that parking lot, around dusk the day before.
(Obviously I’ve left out a lot of details here.)
I’d love to say here that was nice and sunny, temperatures around 68F all day, but that’s not how it happened. When Delmer went missing, it had been a nice day. That was Thursday. When we started this whole scenario it was Friday evening and a cold front was coming in bringing lots of rain, lightning, and hail to some parts of the area. We were sure Delmer would be fine; he was well acquainted with the woods and how to stay safe. Our clues, however, were getting beaten to death and I wasn’t sure what we’d find the next morning.
(A CoCoRaHS station in Floyd County recorded 2.14 inches of rainfall Saturday morning and 1.66 inches of rainfall Sunday morning.)
My team’s first task (04-03) was "signcut the roadway north to the church near 5426-7044, then cut for sign around the church & further up the roadway to 5436-7050". We were on task at 09:34 and started looking for clues around a beautiful old "rock church" named Slate Mountain Church.
Walking around the church and a shelter didn’t yield any clues but once we got down to the road we started to see what appeared to be "shuffle" footprints along the edge of the roadway with an associated "poke" mark where one might be using a walking stick. It was very difficult to see some of the "prints" but the "pokes" were much easier locate and then be used as a reference to see the prints.
We were able to establish a track that went along the road, crossed the road at the church, and continued along the other side of the road around the curve. Moving back down the road, towards the parking lot where his car was originally found, I actually found what I thought was a drag mark from the walking stick that led me to a poke mark. The poke mark pointed to prints that matched what we had seen further up the road.
While I was finding tracks closer to the parking lot, another member of the team (Tyler) had found some tracks that ran into the woods and had started working those. It was way more fun to try to track the person through the woods but when we finally found a good print we realized it was not the person we were looking for (we had received a picture that showed the bottom of the subject’s boots at some point in this evolution) and was able to say that these clues did not belong to Delmer.
A canine team on an area assignment had run across a print that seemed to match our subject’s and had marked it for follow up. Our tracking team was sent out to evaluate the print and determine if it could have been Delmer’s.
We had to hike in maybe a half mile or so down Rock Castle trail to get to the print. And while the print was similar, it did not match what we were looking for.
With storm clouds rolling in, Base sent us on a reflex task to search a drainage. It was one of those steep drainages that has lots of downed trees and vegetation on it, so the going was slow. We had gotten roughly 100m up into the drainage when the thunder started, team Delta called the find in the drainage next to us, and Base told us to return to Base NOW!
The thunder was getting louder and the rain was starting to fall once we had gotten back to our vehicles. Upon getting back onto the Parkway, we received a flash flood warning so I was happy to not have been down in the gorge any longer.
Success! I think everyone had fun and everyone did a great job as well. Delmer was returned safe and sound and will live to go plant hunting again.
I learned a lot about tracking just from watching other people do it. This is definitely something I want to learn more about!
The NPS allowed us to camp at the Rocky Knob Campground for the weekend. The campground is nice, has restrooms nearby, and is wooded.
I took my trusty hiking tent with me that I hadn’t used in quite a while. Apparently I should have tested it before I took it because it I discovered a puddle in the tent Friday night when I returned from preplanning and then to my very own swimming pool on Saturday night. Sleeping in my car on Saturday night wasn’t great but at least I was dry!