The hunt is on. We drop off the wind-whipped mountain road and descend through the fog toward the rain-drenched forest below. Tight lips belie heavy chests, high hopes, and the highest stakes. Our boots thud and click and slide under an urgent pace along the plummeting trail. Tabs stick from cut greenbrier stems where deer have recently fed. I wonder if any black bears are up and at ‘em yet for the spring feeding.
But we’re not chasing mountain bucks or big bruins for meat and memorabilia. We’re searching for a father’s child.
With every search and rescue team following their training and a little good fortune, everybody can go home to their families tonight. But if there’s no good news by dark, it’ll mean another night alone in near-freezing temperatures. Every second counts.
One and the Same We’re not looking for a hunter today, but there are hunters on teams across this operation and nationwide. Apparently, hunters and Search & Rescue teams get on like shrimp and grits: Each makes the other better.
Hunting and SAR are parallel experiences, after all. Killing defines hunting. But the arrow release or trigger pull is just a second of time. Everything before that moment is preparation for and execution of a search. And, at its core, that search has purpose: service in the form of sharing food.
“Hunting and SAR have some very similar skills. They’re just being used for different purposes,” Andrew Piske told MeatEater. He’s an operational K9 handler with Gard K9 Search & Rescue and a SAR instructor who’s worked alongside sheriffs, the FBI, U.S. Marshals, and others. He lives SAR and hunting. And, probably like many of us who are compelled to hunt and to serve, he couldn’t tell you why. Maybe it’s a connection to rural communities where folks have no choice but to depend on each other. Maybe it’s the regular observation of death and the knowledge that nature is unforgiving. Maybe it’s just the way some folks are wired. It’s likely all of that and more. Whatever it is, good hunters make good SAR candidates.
SAR is the act of searching for, rescuing, or recovering a person who is in distress, lost, sick, injured, despondent, or killed while outdoors. SAR structure varies by state, but in Virginia, SAR falls to local law enforcement, who often delegates the responsibility to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. VDEM then calls out the 22 teams of more than 700 professionally-trained volunteers who respond 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“Virginia has three paid SAR resources: The SAR chief and two regional operations directors, but their sole purpose is coordinating,” Piske said. “So, volunteers are critical for our SAR system.”
Likewise, SAR operations across the country rely on volunteers to bring folks home.
A Hunter’s Head Start A good hunter is a woodsman. They pick a goal, plan, and prepare their mind, body, and gear for success. They can work with the adrenaline. They’re patient, present, adaptable, and gritty. They seek out and celebrate the suck of aching muscles and complex problems. They can read a topographical map, build camp, start a fire, and make the most of a long night in the woods. When they look at a landscape, sign waves back. They’re diligent in following that sign when it whispers or wanes. They consider clues of age, direction of travel, and size. Need be, they can grid search. And they know that while most outings will end without success, all end with new knowledge, a step closer to the ultimate goal.
The most important thing hunters have, Piske said, is a rare comfort in the woods—"whether it’s a 100-degree day or a 12-degree night.” This allows training to focus on new technical SAR skills.
Why Serve with SAR? Let’s look at that from a few perspectives relevant to hunters and backcountry anglers:
Self-preservation: Every year, hunters get in trouble, often with lacerations, head injuries, and spinal fractures. We fall out of trees and roll ATVs. We get lost, blow out knees, get wounded by weapons or animals. Some get out on their own. Some don’t get out. SAR teams rescue many. You don’t have to look far to see that accidents happen to good hunters. It could happen to any of us, so there’s a logic to supporting the system we may have to rely on someday.
Unity & Community: On a SAR mission, you’ll work with women and men from every walk of life. Some will be clad in brightly-colored hiking gear, a few will don camo. Vegetarians and meateaters. Left and right, beards and ponytails, badges and backpacks, all united by what is right and urgent. There’s nothing more human than helping someone when they’re hurting. It brings people together for something real that matters. It breaks down barriers and builds community.
Wired to Serve: Sociologists say American hunters are more likely to join the armed forces, and suggest that their experiences and skills are a natural match for the military. If you’re wired this way, you already know it. The SAR motto is: “So others may live.” It’s hard to argue against that kind of service.
Parallel Experience: You may find that some of the things you like most about SAR are the things you like most about hunting. A physical, emotional, and intellectual challenge, a good dose of adventure, learning opportunities, camaraderie, and a sense of accomplishment afterward.
To Improve: They sharpen each other. SAR will make you a better outdoorsman, and hunting will improve your SAR skills. On an SAR team—through professional training, practice, and searches—you build and refine skills in orienteering, wilderness first aid, rescue, tracking, ground search, rope skills, and other areas. Pursue a specialty and become a better hunter still. Tree saddle hunters may be drawn to semi-technical rescue with ropes and harnesses. Houndsmen might join a dog-handling team. Others might find a human tracking team or opportunities for water rescue, ice rescue, mounted rescue, and so on.
Help When You Can: You can accept or decline any callout. There’s plenty to do year-round and there are plenty of ways to contribute. Beyond responding, you can help in exercises, teach a specialized skill, and, if you have land, you can allow a team to train in your own backyard.
Spirituality: Anthropologists observe close connections between spirituality and hunting. Here at home, many hunters come from communities of faith and in some circumstances, hunting is core to their ministry. Meanwhile, service to others is valued in our most common faiths—Christianity, Islam, Judaism—and hunters originate from each of these communities.
Health: Public health research shows volunteer service is tied to better mental and physical health, life satisfaction, self-esteem, and happiness. Your physical fitness will benefit as you train for and respond to SAR missions—I promise.
“I think I have something here,” our team leader calls out. She kneels and studies the sign. “Looks like a footprint.”
After a day of running the crew in coordinated patterns, searching up and down steep terrain, finding and ruling out sign, pulling through mountain laurel and picking through briars, our team leader has just found the impression of a foot in wet moss under mottled afternoon light, deep in the forest.
The print, unfortunately, turns out to be a bear track. We finish our search area. Nothing. It’s over for us today. That ache returns. But another member of the team puts it into perspective: This area is clear. That is an accomplishment. That knowledge is more information, it refines a search area, moves the mission closer to a positive outcome—or at least closure.
We grind up the trail that we tore down this morning. Night falls. The temperature plummets, taking hope with it. My daughters and I are curled up under a blanket watching Coco when the message comes through that the rescue has become a recovery. There’s that ache. Closure. At least the family knows. At least they can mourn and honor their child
SAR volunteers deploy 24/7 to find lost or runaway kids, hunters, anglers, hikers, elderly folks with dementia, troubled and desperate folks. They bring folks home safe. They bring closure to families. They help bring justice to victims. So every second counts. Every volunteer counts. SAR needs more people. Outside Magazine says America’s SAR is in a crisis—and help isn’t coming. They need folks who are good in the woods and who want to be better. They need people who can’t help but help. They need hunters. They need you.
To find the SAR team in your community, contact the National Association for Search & Rescue or your local game warden, fire service, or law enforcement agency. See what's out there, find your interest, match it to your lifestyle, get trained up.
“Just explore it but be careful,” Piske half-jokes. “Chances are you’re going to get hooked.”