The Nerd in the Balloon Jacket

Explorer Search and Rescue badge

Explorer Search and Rescue badge

Long before Microsoft existed, the fields and woods around Redmond, Washington consisted of dark forests, creeks, and the occasional swamp. I know because I spent a number of weekends during high school with my then best friend, Ward Durham, trekking through those woods and swamps in an attempt to find tiny wooden markers using only a map and compass. We made it by the skin of our teeth, finding or stumbling across all the target markers. Along the way, we got wet, muddy, cold, and miserable. It was a blast

Welcome to Explorer Search and Rescue training.

ESAR, as it’s known, is an offshoot of the Explorer Scouts, which in turn is a branch of Boy Scouts of America designed to appeal to older teens 14-18. Explorers still exist in the UK, but the program in the US morphed into something completely different. The ESAR I knew still exists as an independent program in many areas, including King County.

I was a huge nerd as a teenager (no one should be surprised at this), but my nerd obsessions often took unlikely twists. Lord of the Rings and Avalon Hill board games were a huge part of my formative years, but so was backpacking and ESAR. In my own nerdy way, I obsessed on the finer details of backpacking, inspired by Colin Fletcher‘s original The Complete Walker, an early, yet comprehensive tome on how to live the backpacking life.

The Complete Walker, 1969 first edition

The Complete Walker, 1969 first edition

Like any new geek discovery, I followed Fletcher’s recommendations religiously at first, until experience gave me my own quirky take on the art and science of carrying your home on your back in the wilderness. That meant carrying around a huge, all-in-one frame back, with the sleeping stuffed inside the pack. This made great sense in Washington state, where rain is a frequent companion.

Back then, GPS only existed in the minds of engineers designing the system; navigation in the wilderness meant maps and compasses. We all carried USGS (US Geological Survey) topographical maps in plastic bags, and almost all of us carried various old-school compasses. We learned the art of declination offset, since true north and magnetic north aren’t always the same direction. Luckily the compasses of the day allowed us to adjust for declination offset.

Even so, finding your way through dense forest, with no trails, for miles to find a small marker stake driven into the ground didn’t come easy. It took us several weekends to pass that first dead reckoning test. After that, the rest of the training seemed easy.

Then we tried to kill a hapless volunteer victim in the last training session.

The final training session included a mock evacuation from a fake plane crash, carrying an actual person in a Stoke’s litter. Carrying a real person makes stretcher evacuation that much more realistic, so people volunteered to be the “victim”. That training occurred towards the end of February, and a light, wet snow stuck to the ground. The final trail to the evac point wound down a steep hill, and we were supposed to attach a rope to the litter and let it gradually down the slope. At one point, the rope slipped, and the stretcher began plummeting down the hill, only to be caught at the last minute, just as the final few feet of rope spooled out.

silvaOver the next several years, I participated in a number of searches, but never on a team that found anything significant. One time, the team leader, a slender twentysomething named Peter Max (no relation to the artist), decided to check out a fenced-off meadow. As he strode through the meadow, a bull came trotting around a clump of trees, spotting this intruder on his turf. The bull charged. Peter ran back towards the fence, hurdling it cleanly despite carrying a thirty-pound backpack.

Despite never finding a living person or body on a search, I spent a lot of time on search teams in various parts of the Cascade range in Washington. Even in crappy weather, the Cascades are gorgeous. We were often up at sunrise and still running search patterns well into the night. But I never regretted a moment of it.

Being in ESAR also gave me a free pass from school — up to 48 hours of excused absence, as a volunteer for the greater good. One time, I was dropped off back at my high school during the middle of the school day, complete with backpack. Several of the local jocks spotted me,  pointed and laughed. I asked them in a tired voice what was so funny. “Your jacket,” one of them said. “It’s like it’s made of balloons.”

That day, I wore my favorite down jacket, a green REI model, replete with puffy sleeves to contain the goose down.  I wanted to say something pithy about being out in the woods trying to help people, about how beautiful the mountains were, about what idiots they were. But I’d been up for 36 hours straight, tramping through cold woods and scouting riverbanks for a pair of canoeists who had been swept away by fast glacial melt. So instead, I just picked up my backpack, trudged to the school office and called my dad.



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