Operational 160 – Part One

Real World Search vs Testing Search:

It’s 06:30 in the morning. The missing cadet we’ve been looking for has made her way to one of the flashing cruisers parked on the road that surrounds the search area. After spending a night lost in the woods, she’s on her way home to some clean clothes and happy parents. This is why we do everything we do, to send people home to their loved ones. We love a happy ending.

My only disappointment is that our real search has canceled Grom’s 160 acre Operational Evaluation.

in training search harness

Grom is at home in the air conditioned living room, plotting.

You see, he watched us pack this morning, knowing that when the muddy boots and heavy packs go into the truck, it means serious play time for him. We have been called out on a real search and so we made the choice to leave him at home. We didn’t want to leave him in the hot truck all day for nothing. I would probably be lying if I said he was anything less than angry with us when he heard the door lock and he was still in his crate.

But a happy end to a search is a happy end, and we’re all in a good mood when the man who would be my evaluator pulls into the parking lot. With congratulations all the way around, he checks his watch and you can see the decision bouncing around in his head. Is there’s still enough time to get the Grom and go down to the training site where we were going to run the 160….

“Let’s go. We can still get your test in today, we’re done with the search early enough.”

As I add up the time to go back to the house, pack up the rest of the gear, and make it down to the site I realize we’re looking at an 11:00 AM start time. “Are you sure? It’s supposed to be warm today.” He’s adamant that everything will be fine. Since he’s going to be one of the people out there suffering with me.  I agree. On the way back to the house I check the weather forecast again only to realize I’ve just talked myself into a 90 degree search, with 85% humidity.

We make record time down to the training site.

It’s 10:30 when we roll into base, I see a few cars around but fewer people. It’s a training day and people are out in the field working their dogs. My second evaluator is sitting by his truck shuffling papers.  I resolve to make this a fast briefing so we can get out into the field as fast as possible. This is as close to a real briefing as you get in the training process.

task assignment form

For the first time, I’m given a state radio that lets me talk to people very far away and a Task Assignment Form.

The topographical map that’s attached to my form has a sector outlined on it that looks to be about the size of a small airport.  I swallow hard, knowing there’s no chance I can cover it all in 6 hours, especially in this heat. There’s at least two people out there, even though they aren’t moving around, I’m sure they’re baking just like we are.

So I suck it up and suit up the dog– it’s game time.

The undefined boundary of my sector is 500 meters up a trail to the north of the road that splits my sector in two. Once we’re at the trail head I give Grom his marching orders and set him loose, making sure that he’s working the east side of the road. Every 50 meters or so I walk into the woods on that side. I’m fighting with my pace beads that have become hopelessly tangled in my strap trying to count out 500 meters. By the time I get to 5 beads, I look around for a tree branch to hang a corner flag from. We stop to rest for a couple minutes while I make sure all is as it should be.

Hanging Search Flags

The compass needle says something to me I don’t like. Looking at the map and comparing the bearing of the road to the line on my map I know I’ve over shot my boundary, but I don’t know by how much. Once I pass this test, I am allowed to reach into my pack and ask the GPS how many meters I’m off, but right now I’m living in a pre-GPS world and I have no idea how far off the line I am. (No GPS usage on the tests!)  I chew on it for a minute and one of my evaluators asks me how I know I’m not where I should be. So I give him the whole sorry story, and when I get to the end, I’m left in the same predicament I started with. How far off am I?

When in doubt, do it anyway.

I make the decision to go from where I am, one extra grid line won’t kill me. I’ll just sweat more. We turn east and I start hanging flags.  This place is going to get the full treatment.

There’s a rhythm to getting it all done right.

Check your bearing, count your paces, have a flag ready when you get to the your point, and hang a flag. It takes a few tries. By the time I get to the ditch I think should be my far boundary, I realize I can’t tell if is the ditch I’m looking for or if I’m pulling the same trick I pulled on the road. I think there should be another ditch 30 paces away if I did my math right and that’s where I’ll need to hang my second corner flag.

Fortunately, there is a second ditch, it’s 40 paces away but it’s close enough that I’m content with it. Grom is looking a little hot, so we stop for a few minutes to get a drink and rest in the shade. I’m really hoping there’s some running water in this bit of woods so he can splash around and cool off, we haven’t found it yet. After a few minutes I turn our little band south and we move down to start the second cross grid.

hot search dog

I’m getting better at the bearing/flag/pace/hang game

I occasionally start to check the wind to see if there’s any movement. My travel sized bottle of baby powder has 8 holes in the top.  I let the powder drift down to the ground I swear I see it form 8 little piles. There is no wind at all in the woods today, except where a sunny spot breaks through the canopy. There the sunlight heats the air and makes it’s own wind, directly up.

“that will be funny after I pass this test, if I pass this test.”

We make a couple passes through the brush, resting at the boundaries or when ever Groms tongue gets wide enough I’m afraid he’ll step on it. The thermometer on my evaluators pack says 90 and I hear thunder in the distance. It cant get much more humid.

It’s on the fourth grid that we come across a line of trees that have fallen like dominos. Going east to west, they line up like a fence and I’m tired of going over trees so I shoot my bearing try to walk along them, keeping my bearing as straight as possible. I think it’s not going so bad, until I pop out onto the road and stare at a flag I hung at the beginning of the last trip in the other direction. I swear the dog is laughing at me since he knows he already sniffed this bush. This is a recoverable error and I move everyone south down the road more than normal to make up for the drift. We start our trip back toward the far boundary.

I’m beginning to wonder how bad the storm was that knocked all these trees down. We’re back in another bunch of downed oaks when I find the dog standing under a big branch staring up at something. I go over to investigate what he’s found. My heart starts to beat a little faster because I know it could be a clue.

“whatcha got bud…..dy….?”

There, right in front of me, is a piece of my flagging tape hanging from a tree. I did it again; I’m back in area I’ve already covered.

My internal debate rages. If I turn south and pick up where I Should be, I can just keep moving and leave the hole in my grid for later. If I go back to the road to correct my grid that’s at least 20 minutes of rewalking the same line. The day is only getting hotter. My debate becomes external to give my evaluators a clue about what I’m thinking. They both nod patiently as I yammer.

Finally, calm returns and I choose choice d) none of the above.

I’ll go back half way since I’m not too far into my sector and correct from there. When we get back to the correct flag, I turn south and start to move into an area with less deadfall and more shade. There’s a spider web in the bush I’m pushing my way through and as I clear it from my glasses I see something hanging from a tree.

A big piece of fabric that could be from the “ultralight” I’m out here to find dangles from a branch.

The evaluator twins come up behind me. I go into clue mode hanging a long flag from a near by tree.  I’m looking around for my dog so we can start our 360 degree circle around our clue. My Plan is pouring out of my mouth when I spot Grom standing ten meters from a tree staring at what could be the edge of a tarp.

“Why isn’t he indicating?”

I’m about ready to call the whole thing off when I realize that there’s still no air moving.

If Grom can’t smell a person, even if something that looks like a person, it’s all just furniture to him. He gets one more chance here. I make a clicking noise that he knows means something interesting is happening where I am so he comes running back to me. I give him a look and line him up in a direction away from where he was standing so I can give him the search command again. As I release him, he goes directly back to that tree and returns at a full run. I’ve started to walk away from him so he has to come all the way around to find my face. The barks come out loud and strong, and I smile to myself before I let him lead me back to my first subject.

search dog indication

By the time I get to her, Grom is harassing her for his toy. I have to hold him while I make sure this is who I’m looking for and that she’s alright. I break out my map and start to get the radio going. The evaluators give their blessing to giving Grom some play,

“but not too much, he still has work to do.”

We all decide it’s a good time to rest. I decide that it’s a good time to start breathing again.

One subject down, an unknown number left to go.

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One Response to “Operational 160 – Part One”

  1. […] Operational Test 160: Part Two (read Operational Test Part One) […]

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