Go Find

5 min

Joe is a retired US Marine and a current SAR K9 Handler in northern Utah. He has written two novels featuring SAR dogs at work; Ghosts of Iwo Jima and Ghosts of the Buffalo Wheel  [+]

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Riding in a helicopter is my favorite thing ever. I can look out the window and see things I never see anywhere else. The best part is that when we land it’s always Time to Go to Work.
This time it isn’t much fun. It’s snowing, we’re going in and out of clouds, and I can’t see much. The helicopter bounces around making my tummy feel bad. The Man pulls me closer and puts his arm around me.
Now we’re flying in a circle so The Man and I can see where we’ll be going. A piece of the mountain has broken off and fallen down. It’s the biggest slide I’ve ever seen. Once, when The Man was skiing with me running alongside him, the snow started moving, and I tumbled and went under the snow. I couldn’t breathe. The Man pulled me out right away, but it was the scariest thing that ever happened to me. I haven’t thought about that in a long time. Now I can’t get it out of my mind.
When we get out on top of the snow-covered ridge, the helicopter is at full power fighting the wind. Snow is blowing all around. It’s cold. I’m glad I have two coats of thick fur.
The Man puts on his skis and pack. Other men are waiting for us. The Man talks with them. They point to a place down the ridge.
We go to where the men pointed. It looks even worse than it did from the helicopter. There’s a gap in the ridge where the snow is broken away. It’s almost straight down. I can’t see the pile of snow at the bottom of the slide. Before I can stop it, a soft whine comes out of my mouth.
I’m scared. I don’t want to go down there. But if The Man tells me to go, I’ll go, because I’m a Good Dog.
The Man is talking into his black box. He looks worried. Not scared, The Man is never scared like I am. The Man kneels down to talk to me.
“The weather’s too bad, the helo’s grounded. We’re on our own. There’s someone down there. We’re his only chance. Are you ready, Gunny?”
I look into The Man’s eyes. I don’t understand all the words, but I know this is important. He depends on me, he trusts me.
Yes, I’m ready.
The Man understands and says the words I’ve been waiting to hear.
“Gunny! Go Find!”
If I stop to think, I won’t be able to do it, so I just go. Down the wall of snow so steep I feel like I’m falling. Scrabbling with my paws to keep from sliding, I hear the scrape of skis above and know that The Man is with me.
Just when I think that I won’t be able to stop, the slope levels out just a little, and the snow gets softer. I dig in and get my paws back underneath me as The Man skis up alongside.
For a long way down the hill, the snow has been scraped smooth. Far below I can just see a jumble of snow blocks marking where the slide stopped. The man we’re looking for is down there. I’ve never searched anything this big before. I don’t know if I can do it.
The other men ski down. They can help to dig, but I have to find the missing man first. I put my nose up into the wind. It’s blowing up the hill toward me. That helps, but it’s still going to be harder than anything I’ve ever done. I look up at The Man.
I will find this man. I will find him for you.
The Man nods. “Good boy, Gunny! Go Find!”
We slide and skitter down the path of smooth snow to the beginning of the pile. Now it’s time to search. Moving across the slide path, going around or over the blocks of snow, my nose is working trying to find any trace of man scent. I have to work fast, but not so fast that I’m breathing too hard to use my nose.
It takes a long time to make just one pass across the slide path. I look down and see that we’ve barely started to cover the search area. I hope that the missing man will be near the top, but they’re usually at the bottom.
The next pass starts a little farther down the hill. When we finish that, my legs are tired. The Man sees that I’m breathing hard and lets me rest, but just for a moment. There’s someone down there under all that snow. We have to hurry.
The third pass is hard and the fourth even harder, and we’re less than halfway down. We take a little longer rest, but then it’s time to go again.
On the fifth pass, I’m struggling to get up over a large snow block when... yes, there’s something. It’s very faint, but it’s man scent. I stand on the snow block and sniff the wind. The Man watches me. He knows when I have man scent. It takes a few sniffs, but now I know where it’s coming from and I slide down off the snow block and start moving downhill. I’m more tired than I’ve ever been, but I can ignore that now. I have scent!
I can tell that the scent is on the surface of the snow. The man came this way carried by the snow and left his scent behind. It’s like following a trail through the woods.
Going down the steep hill is exhausting. There are snow blocks to go over and snow that is soft and deep to push through, but I won’t stop. I’m getting close to the bottom of the slide when I lose the scent.
When I was younger, this would have confused me. But I’ve been doing this with The Man for eight winters now, and I know what happened. The man had been carried along on the surface, but here he’d been caught and gone down under the snow. The man is close, but there’s less scent because he’s buried.
I start to move from side to side with my nose right on the snow. Nothing here, nothing here, there! I sniff around the base of a snow block until I’m sure, then I lift my head and look up at The Man, bark twice, and start digging.
“Shovelers! I’ve got a dog alert here!”
Then The Man is alongside me pushing a long metal probe into the snow where I’m digging.
“I’ve got a probe strike here! Not too deep. Maybe two feet.”
When the other men arrive, The Man pulls me aside to give them room. Then he hugs me and tells me I’m a Good Dog and gives me a jerky treat. I’m happy just to be sitting for a minute.
“OK, Gunny, take a break. Let us get this guy out of there.”
In a few minutes, the men have a big hole where I was digging. One of the men bends down into the hole and digs with his hands.
“I’ve got his head! He’s not breathing. He’s got a pulse. Let’s get him out of here!”
The men are digging fast now, throwing snow down on top of me, so I move out of the way. I have a chance to rest. I’ve never been this tired, and, now that I’m not moving, I can feel the cold. I think about what will happen next. We’re near the bottom of the slide, but still a long way up on the mountain. Will I have to run all the way down on my own? I don’t know if I can.
The man is out of the snow. They’re wrapping a shiny blanket around him. The Man is talking into his black box.
“The wind’s dropped. They’re sending the helo!”
Not much is happening that involves me, so I curl up as much as I can to keep warm. I’m almost asleep when I hear the helicopter coming. Maybe we’ll ride down.
But the helicopter doesn’t land. It seems to just float in the air over us blowing snow all around. In a few minutes, they have the man who was hurt in a basket, and they’re lifting him up into the helicopter. The helicopter flies away.
“Hey, Gunny, you’re shiverin’. C’mon, let’s get you movin’.”
I get up slowly. My legs are so stiff I can hardly stand. My shoulders hurt from running downhill so much. I don’t know if I can make it all the way down the mountain, but I can’t stay here. I’ll have to try.
We go off to the side, out of the slide path where the snow is smoother. It’s still hard work because the snow is deeper here. I start getting tired right away.
We don’t go far before we stop on a little level spot, and The Man talks into his black box. I’m just trying to get my breath.
Then I hear the helicopter. It’s coming back. It flys over us and turns and comes back and lands.
In a few minutes, we’re flying down the mountain. I look out and see the other three men skiing down. The Man made the helicopter come back to give me a ride.
I lean against The Man and relax. I’m sore and tired, but I feel good. I was scared, but I did what The Man needed me to do. I was a Good Dog.
Riding in a helicopter is my favorite thing ever.

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