Monday, May 19, 2014

Insider's Look: MMSAR - The Actual Search

The last 9 days have been crazy, informative, affirming, exhausting, exciting, and draining. I've gotten a much better understanding of search and rescue (SAR) work, the infrastructure in Maine, and the impact on my non-SAR life.

There is so much information I want to share that I will have to break it up into a few posts.

A 15 year old boy, Jaden Dremsa, went missing in southern Maine Thursday 5/8 and Maine Mounted Search and Rescue (MMSAR) was notified the following Sunday that the horses were requested for Monday.

The Maine Warden Service (the star of "Northwoods Law") is in charge of every land search in Maine (except for in Baxter State Park, which has 24 hours for its own rangers to search before calling in the wardens). When someone goes missing, the wardens decide what resources are needed based on a number of factors and calls out the appropriate units. The Maine Association for Search and Rescue (MASAR) is the umbrella organization and sets the training and certification standards for each member unit. (Besides us, there are 14 other units including a K-9 unit...the dog team is usually one of the first units called out.)

So the wardens can elect to search by themselves, call out only the "professional volunteers" (MASAR-certified members), or ask the public for assistance. We do not bring the horses to searches unless we are specifically requested to. The wardens conduct several hundred searches a year and they have a lot of resources, including dogs and boats, as well as access to planes and helicopters. Their success rate is phenomenal and they often don't get to the point of needing to call out anyone else. My unit typically gets called out to 6-12 times a year, the less specialized units tend to get called out a little more often.

In the search for Jaden last weekend, it was all hands on deck meaning public assistance was requested. People in the community and across the state poured into Waterboro to help with the search. We had members of MMSAR there Friday, Saturday, and Sunday doing ground searches and support work.

When the wardens asked on Sunday for the horses to be there Monday, Harlan and I had just gotten done trail riding with Melissa, an MMSAR board member and past president. Tanner is not certified yet so I knew I wouldn't be going on a mounted search, but Melissa's truck was in the shop, the current MMSAR president (who lives in the area) Sharon's trailer wouldn't accommodate Peekaboo, Melissa's abnormally long horse, and her truck wouldn't comfortably haul Melissa's trailer the 2.5 hours to the search. As I was conveniently there with the F-Bomb, I offered them its services.

Considering it was all hands on deck, Sharon and Melissa suggested that if I could, this would be a good time for me to get my feet wet with the SAR process. I thought about my work schedule on Monday and made the decision to go on the search, finding coverage and notifying work. I took Harlan home and the following morning got up at 3 am to drive back to Melissa's to pick up her, her trailer, and Peekaboo. We met Sharon and her horse Zephyr at a truck stop, moved Zephyr to Melissa's trailer, and headed south.

The F-Bomb looking official

When anyone, civilian or professional volunteer, gets to a search they check in with Dirigo. Dirigo is a unit based out of Orono that handles the resources for the wardens at many searches. Each volunteer gets a "T-card" with their name on it; established units have permanent T-cards while civilians get their names handwritten on temporarily-kept T-cards.

Generic T-cards

The T-cards allow Dirigo to make sure everyone is accounted for and they help organize the chaos.

Since we are a specialized unit, Melissa and Sharon went to the wardens' command post after checking in with Dirigo to get their assignment. (A second horse team of Ellen and Colleen had already gotten their assignment and were out on the search by the time we arrived.) They handed their GPS units to the wardens who then downloaded a track onto it, the area they needed to search. They were given instructions of where to park the trailer, said goodbye to me, and headed out.

I went back to where Dirigo was stationed, the lobby of a church that had opened its doors to the searchers. The wardens had their command post trailer parked in the parking lot. I started helping civilian volunteers check in; they signed in on a clipboard, I made a T card with their name on it and put it on the board, and they went to wait in the sanctuary for their assignments. When there were enough people, teams of ~10 were assembled, team leaders briefed (if a warden wasn't the team leader), and were sent out to search.

Even though it was a Monday, over 180 civilians showed up to help. The church opened its kitchen and had church members making breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as making sure there was enough water and bug spray to go around.

It was incredible to see the community response. Jaden and his family weren't members of this church yet they threw open their doors to help. People who didn't know Jaden checked in and tromped through the woods and ticks on an assignment, came back to Dirigo and asked for the next assignment.

In that box are all the T cards for civilians that showed up to search for Jaden Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

People were constantly streaming in with armfuls of donations. It was warm out so people dropped off cases of water. The ticks were terrible so the church posted on its Facebook page that they were looking for bug spray. This is the result:

You can't see all of the bug spray but it was A LOT. One woman came in with some and said she had taken all of the spray that Walmart had.

I can't describe the feeling of being part of this. Although the family was there and worried sick and my heart ached for them, the amount of support, love, and determinedness to 'search til you drop' was enveloping. I felt so much affirmation that this is what I want to do, this is what I want to be a part of. I can't wait for June 27 and 28 to certify Tanner.

They didn't find Jaden on Monday. A couple of our mounted teams were ready to go on Tuesday if they were called out but the wardens decided to focus the search, using only their internal and state police resources.

I didn't get home til midnight so was a little late to work and when I got there found some discord about my Monday absence (and future absences due to searches). To go from such life-affirming, feeling-like-part-of-a-bigger-than-me-thing emotions to a mix of shame, disappointment, anger, and panic was not fun. 

Then we add in a 2 day state-wide MASAR conference this past weekend hosted by my unit and featuring me as the volunteer coordinator, and then the news that Jaden's body had been found in a nearby lake...I am exhausted in all ways.

I am so sorry for Jaden and his family, but relieved that they have an answer and grateful that I found something that fulfills a big part of something in me.

Stay tuned for a post on the conference and another on the specifics of mounted searches.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Wish Me Good Cluck

You didn't really think the population at Blonde Bomber Acres would remain stable (pun intended), did you? If you did, I lulled you into a false sense of security.

Behold the luscious new ladies of BBA:

There are four of them: 2 Americanas and 2 brown leghorns.

I've resisted getting chickens in the past but have succumbed for a number of reasons. First, there are so many empty little buildings on my property that I felt like I need to fill at least one more. Second, eggs. Third (and the real reason), they eat ticks and I'd like to keep Harlan and Tanner Lyme-free.

So, meet the crew. First up is Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the beautiful and fabulous leader of this flock.

Then there's this big girl, Edith.

And the last two are the Pheasant Sisters, Lottie and Dottie.

This is a chicken experiment. None of us should get very attached because they are all rasping and showing signs of respiratory disease. (Of course I would buy sick chickens.) I immediately checked in with my chicken-guru-sister and she gave me the skinny on it...apparently it is common, incurable, and needs to be treated with antibiotics. So off I went to Tractor Supply for antibiotics and syringes and when I got back I traumatized all of us by injecting stuff into their breasts (or the general vicinity of their breasts, I am not up on chicken anatomy).

I hope they survive until morning (and continue surviving). If not, Chicken Experiment 1.0 has failed and I will decide if I want to continue to Chicken Experiment 2.0.

In other news, I am on page 4 of a 10 page paper due at midnight, on the genetics of infectious disease. Why did I want to go back to school again?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Pony Problems

I have taken two good falls off of Harlan Pepper this spring. The first time was understandable; it was the first ride of the spring, we were by ourselves, the ground shifted underneath him.

The second time however, I moved my leg and it sent him into a tizzy that involved a spook, buck, turn to bolt home, and trip which landed me on the pavement with some nice bruises from the saddle collected on the way down.

This isn't like Harlan. He was such a good pony last fall and throughout the winter: I could ride him off by himself, he was calm and trusting, and we had great adventures on farm and off farm.

But now every ride involves a pent up Harlan spooking from side to side, freaking out if I move my legs or put the slightest pressure on his sides. He is amazing to pony alongside Tanner (non horse folks: ponying is when you ride one horse and lead the other one alongside) and still has wonderful and respectful ground manners.

So something has changed. It's now the Great Mystery to figure out what, be it either behavioral or medical.

Behavioral Possibilities
1. Spring jitters: Possible, but I don't think likely. He is so good ponying and on the ground.
2. Lack of trust in me: Also possible and we are taking lots of walks together (me leading him, not riding) as well as ponying alongside Tanner to increase confidence.
3. Assholery: He doesn't have it in him to be this much of a jerk. I keep telling everyone that he has such a good brain and such a sweet personality, which is why this whole thing is so frustrating.

Medical Possibilities
1. Lyme disease: Negative. I really thought he might have Lyme because some of the symptoms include extreme sensitivity to touch and crankiness under saddle. But his tests came back negative. Yay!
2. Vision problem: For a little bit I thought maybe he was having issues with his left eye in particular since he was more reactive on that side to my leg moving. This could still be an issue, but his eyes look fine to my untrained eye and he isn't reactive to me being on the ground on either side of him.
3. Ulcers: This is my new "diagnosis of the day" for him. It wasn't until Saturday's ride that I put together the pieces of the puzzle that he spooked from my leg moving resulting in me falling off, and that any movement from my leg or any pressure on his sides makes him flinch and shoot forward.

I talked to my vet this morning about the possibility of ulcers and she thought it would be a good idea to start him on the treatment. Diagnosing ulcers involves a gastric scope which her practice doesn't do, and I imagine it costs a pretty penny to do it. The treatment for ulcers is just a stronger dose than the prevention for ulcers so it won't do him any harm if he doesn't have ulcers. Fingers crossed that this does the trick.

I don't want him to have a medical issue, but it would also be a much easier explanation of his behavioral changes and if ulcers, it's a straightforward solution. And also I hate the thought that I'm getting frustrated and giving him negative feedback to moving away from my leg if he's uncomfortable because of ulcers or another physical ailment.

But it is entirely possible that I'm looking for excuses that aren't there. If the ulcer treatment doesn't do anything, I'll move forward on the assumption that it's behavioral and we'll do a lot of desensitization. I put up a tiny temporary riding pen in the pasture and I rode for just about 10 minutes last night. Once he stopped reacting to my legs swinging up and down and around and the presence of my legs on his sides, we were done with the lesson.

Either way, I am sad that Harlan is struggling no matter the cause. I am confident that we will work through it; I love that big dino-head.

Side note: I feel so lucky that even though Harlan is confusing and frustrating me right now, I still love working with him and never get tired of rubbing that big dorky face. That wasn't the case with Piper and Cooper - both of them are great horses with great hearts but neither were the right horses for me. My friend and fellow blogger Amanda decided that her pony critter isn't the right one for her. She's getting some flak for "breaking up" with her horse, but horses really are a relationship and if it's not right it is better for everyone to find new partners before everything turns completely sour. Just like with dating, it takes multiple attempts to find the right relationship and that is completely okay.