Betty Hodgson knows firsthand just how easy it is to get lost, especially out in the woods.
She is the first to admit she’s gotten lost, and it’s as simple as not paying attention to your surroundings.
Now, Hodgson is one of more than 35 members of the Pugwash Ground Search and Rescue organization.
“There are more people in the woods these days, especially with geocaching,” said Hodgson.
She uses a hunter as a good example on how easy it is to get lost. He was out checking his traps on a windy, blustery day and the trees were swaying.
“It’s so easy to lose your landmarks,” she said. “It makes it very easy to get lost. If you’re going out and have GPS, you need to know how to use it.”
The organization was formed almost 40 years ago – in 1978 – after the RCMP expressed an interest in such a group.
Jim Wills was one of those founding members, and at the age of 89, he’s still an active member, albeit not as active as previous years.
“At the time, we only had a compass, no other equipment. The more people lost every weekend were hunters,” he said.
About four years ago, the organization was averaging about four calls per year – mainly searching for lost people, a user of the Project Lifesaver program (personalized bracelets with unique tracking signals), or assisting the RCMP on an evidence search.
Now, their last call was more than a year ago.
“We’re not getting as many calls now because there are more people with GPS,” said Debbie Cameron, who works on the command post for calls.
“And people are better educated now,” added Hodgson.
“But we’re still being called out and finding people.”
A decade after being formed, the members were able to finance and build a building, which they’re still utilizing on King Street. Now, their command vehicle is a 1998 milking truck, outfitted with electronics for all their needs to set up a command post anywhere they may be called.
Their last missing person search was in December 2015 – a man was lost in the Fort Lawrence area, just outside Amherst.
Hodgson said that incident benefitted from having a trained ground search and rescue crew.
“We got called out and a team got there quickly and surveyed the area. They were out and found tracks that lead to the man’s rescue. It’s the ability to put together a group of people in a short period of time and them being able to make quick decisions,” she said.
In this case, someone was paying enough attention to see footprints.
“It was such a horrible day, too. It was snowing, it was cold…it was just awful. Had he been out much longer, he wouldn’t have survived.”
There have been a number of calls in the province over the years of missing seniors.
“With the aging population and the increase in dementia…it’s easy for them to go off and get disoriented,” she said.
Members of the organization have basic training courses they must complete, with others opting for additional courses. Basic first aid is a must.
Although they may not have as many calls these days, members are still encouraging others to think about joining them as there still are those times they’re called upon.
“The emphasis is on there being jobs for everyone. I have a condition so I can’t be in the woods for the searches, but I’m on the command post,” said Cameron, adding it’s a good way to give back to the community.
“It’s about being part of a team. It’s educational. For me, it takes me to a place I’m not usually going to be – it’s challenging, it’s thought-provoking.”
While many people would prefer to be searching during the day, there are times when members are conducting searches at night.
The organization has a stretcher – or mule – to help carry victims who are injured. They can load the victim onto the mule, then the mule onto wheels for easier transport.
Tips for going out in the woods:
– Follow a marked trail, and stay on it. If you’re novice, go out in a recreational place.
– Tell someone when you’re leaving and when you expect to be back, and don’t change that without telling them
– Carry what you need to survive overnight. The weather can change quickly, so take what you might need – a rain coat to keep you dry, extra clothing, something to cover your head and keep you warm. Water, a snack, something for energy.
– Take what you need to survive such as matches, and make sure you know how to use all items.
– Be 18 or older (between 16 and 18 require parental consent)
– Be physically and mentally fit for outdoor tasks
– Not have a criminal record
– Be able to volunteer for training, meetings, fundraising, events and searches