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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Search-and-rescue volunteers provide vital assistance to Maine Warden Service

Bryan Courtois of Saco is president of Pine Tree Search and Rescue, and education director and team leader for Maine Association for Search and Rescue. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Bryan Courtois has been volunteering on a search and rescue team in southern Maine for 30 years, helping the Maine Warden Service find people lost in the wilderness.

His most grueling rescue was in 1996 on Saddleback Mountain when a woman who was on a group hike he was leading fell and broke her leg. Back before there were cell phones to call for help, Courtois, then 32, made the crucial decision to evacuate her and not wait for help. He carried the 150-pound woman down the mountain on his back over the course of eight hours.

His efforts may have saved the woman’s life.

“I splinted her leg. But it was cold, wet and rainy conditions, so we didn’t want to stay put,” Courtois said. “I had some webbing and I made a sling, which pretty much was on my shoulders. Hypothermia was definitely on my mind. I knew we needed to get out. And we did what we needed to do.”

Courtois is one of a few hundred volunteers across the state who take part in search-and-rescue teams. Their assistance can make the difference in finding a lost person, rescuing an injured hiker, or recovering the body of a deceased person to help give a family closure.

“They mean a lot to us,” said Sgt. Josh Bubier of the Maine Warden Service.

Since 2016, the warden service has responded to an average of 465 searches a year in the woods and on the waters of Maine, Bubier said. The number of searches has grown slightly larger as more people embraced outdoor activities during the pandemic, he said.

Those who are rescued by the warden service are not charged. And not all of those calls result in large-scale searches, Bubier noted. 

The warden service puts out the call for search-and-rescue teams, and coordinates them. Those volunteer teams assist the wardens on about 5 percent of the wardens’ searches – or 10 to 30 calls a year, Bubier said.

Still, those roughly two calls a month are for volunteers who leave their homes, sometimes in the middle of the night, or to go into the woods for an entire night.

On any given search, the warden service generally will have between three and 30 field wardens on hand – with the average around 10 to 12, Bubier said. When they’re needed, the volunteer search-and-rescue teams send two to three times as many people.

The 15 volunteer search-and-rescue teams in Maine are trained in how to perform a grid search (where people fan out to search an area) and how to stabilize a person in critical condition and haul them out of the wilderness safely.

There are approximately 200 certified search-and-rescue team members and leaders with the Maine Association for Search and Rescue, said Courtois, who is president of Pine Tree Search and Rescue and the education director and search team leader of MASAR. He estimated there are roughly double the number of uncertified people in training.

To become a certified SAR team member, trainees must complete a search-and-rescue course, and have basic training in first aid and CPR. Trainees who are not yet certified are allowed to attend searches so long as there is one MASAR certified search team member for every two trainees, they have the first aid/CPR training and have passed a basic fitness test.

Search team leaders are required to have wilderness first aid or higher, so when they see a broken leg or ankle or possible trauma situation high on a mountain peak, they know how to handle it and transport the person out of the backcountry. 

Matt Lint is a member of both the Highlands search-and-rescue team and the 53-year-old Dirigo SAR team in the Bangor area, the state’s oldest squad. At 32 he already has been a SAR responder for 22 years – after starting on Dirigo’s youth team at age 12. He can vividly recall a rescue in Baxter State Park a dozen years ago for a “double dislocation” on Katahdin, which is as gruesome as it sounds.                                                                                                  

“What happened was a man fell between two boulders and his backpack got stuck and basically his shoulders touched the top of his head,” Lint said. “His shoulders were not where they were supposed to be. After we got to him, it probably took us 12 hours to get him down (Katahdin) to Katahdin Stream. Every little bump or rock we stepped over, he moaned. He was in a lot of pain.”

Lint got the call at his Orono home at 6 p.m. He got home after the mission at 8 a.m. the next morning. An outdoor enthusiast who works as a pastry chef at the University of Maine, Lint loves the pay-it-forward reward.

He goes with his two search-and-rescue teams to camp on a stand-by basis in Baxter State Park four weekends a year. Last year they had a call every time they were there.

“One time there were a couple of guys hiking off the mountain, and one was dehydrated. It was 9 p.m. and he was walking wicked slow and was sweaty and pale. At first, I thought he might be in a cardiac situation. But by the time we got there he was still moving and was talking. He was so done. He was sluggish. We got him some water, some electrolytes. He ended up sleeping in his car that night,” Lint said.

Ed Pontbriand has been on search-and-rescue teams for 42 years, including as a ranger for the National Park Service at Glacier and Teton national parks. When he retired in 2014 and moved to Bridgton, he helped jump start the Wilderness Rescue Team that has members from southern and central Maine. 

Pontbriand said rescues are often long, as much as 12 to 15 hours, but sometimes you also get lucky and a physician happens along. He’s seen it happen a few times – like on a rescue call at Baxter State Park several years ago when a teenage girl hiking Katahdin with a camp got impaled on an iron rung on the Hunt Trail after falling.  

“As luck would have it, a doctor was hiking down and within 10 minutes was within sight. He patched her up, so she was no longer bleeding,” Pontbriand said. “I was at the ranger station and some gal came running screaming. The cell phone service there was very poor. So I gathered all the information and went up with a SAR team to carry her out. I got to her around 9 a.m. and got down around 8 p.m. just before dark.”

Steve Hudson joined the Mount Desert Island search-and-rescue team in 1987 after working on an ocean vessel and becoming proficient in riggings. That experience turned out to be handy for helping with rope rescues, a skill he now teaches.

Hudson, now a boat builder in Steuben, said the MDI search-and-rescue team used to go on 20 to 30 rescues a year, but last year had 50.

The most grueling search-and-rescue mission he went to was 29 years ago when his team went looking for a climber who fell down Great Head, the cliff next to Sand Beach in Acadia National Park.

It was at night in October when the team lowered Hudson by rope 40 feet down the cliff to look for the victim. He hung about 40 feet above the crashing ocean for 20 minutes trying to find the man. 

“I was on a (rope) system I trusted and I trusted the people lowering me. That didn’t change the fact I was lowered close to the surf and it was coming in very hard. I was very scared,” Hudson said. “The climber drowned. But we didn’t know that at the time. We just knew there was a person there. I was finally able to recognize that what I saw washing around was a body, not equipment.”

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