CADILLAC — Recreational opportunities abound in the Northwest Michigan region, but those who venture into the woods without a plan could become the subject of a search and rescue.
Several local law enforcement agencies in the Cadillac area employ a K-9 team that can be deployed to track down drugs, bombs, and missing persons. Dogs specially trained for K-9 can adapt to any number of search and rescue scenarios, but there are precautions Recreators can take to speed their own recovery.
Michigan State Police Cadillac Post Trooper and K-9 Handler Matt Unterbrink said this time of year it is more common to be faced with search and rescue missions for lost hunters, especially for upstate visitors who may be unfamiliar with the country .
People often get flipped in the woods walking to and from their game preserve, and if they don’t have cell service — or a phone at all — they could end up stranded. But if they have access to working technology, they should take every opportunity to alert friends and family to their location, Unterbrink said.
“I always tell people, if you go out and decide to go hunting, make sure you tell people where you’re going, and these days it’s pretty easy,” he said. “You can get to your deer blind, and you can put a pin down from your phone and send it to someone else or share your location on your phone.”
Hunters usually return towards evening. So if the sun has already set and a loved one hasn’t called in a few hours, it could mean it’s time to contact local law enforcement. Unterbrink said friends and family of the missing person shouldn’t wait to get in touch if they think something is wrong. All too often, people initiate an investigation themselves, which could pose a problem for rescue dogs, by spreading multiple human scents in the search area. It also delays the seek time.
Once the K-9 unit was called to the scene, Unterbrink said he would start with the last known location of the missing person, which in the case of a hunter would be their blind deer. Then the dogs are put into action.
Osceola County Undersheriff and K-9 Handler Jed Avery said search and rescue dog training is intense. They prepare their canines for all sorts of weather conditions and landscape variances, although some are more difficult to navigate than others. Both Avery and his K-9 unit counterpart, Lt. Mark Moore, took on the task of training their own dogs, Ryker and Chase, and the process is divided into two search methods: human scent and ground disturbance.
Similar to other forms of dog training, Avery said Ryker and Chase were trained using a treat reward system. To practice tracking ground disturbances, Avery first walks a path into the staged search area, tearing up vegetation to reveal the smell of freshly broken grass and other undergrowth. He then puts down a treat every now and then, indicating to the dog that he will be rewarded if he continues to follow the rugged ground.
At the same time, the dogs are trained to recognize and track human scents, so they begin to associate the scent with the soil disturbance. Avery and Moore avoid training Ryker and Chase to track their own scent or the scent of officers they may come into contact with, so it’s always a unique scent, just like an actual search.
The speed with which a person can be found depends mainly on the elements. For example, Avery said it’s much easier to track in the evening because UV rays can kill human smell.
However, if the rescue is carried out in the snow, it can hinder a person’s smell. It also creates greater danger for the missing person by putting them at greater risk of hypothermia due to a potentially increased search time. Wind can also be a factor in rescue speed, as strong gusts can divert scent.
Unterbrink said he’s found the snow helpful at times because it can preserve footprints. He said that in his experience, K-9’s biggest obstacle is a possible time delay rather than inclement weather. In addition to leaving footprints, Unterbrink said it might be helpful for hunters to bring a pack of glowsticks to track their path as they traverse the forest.
It’s not every day that the search and rescue team is called out on a task, so it’s important that the dogs receive consistent training to stay prepared.
“We teach the dogs to follow human tracks and ground disturbances, so it’s just a process that you have to keep working with them,” Moore said. “They ask her to try and find a person. It’s like hunting dogs, but that’s their instinct and we teach them to find people.”
Hunters and other recreational seekers who get lost are encouraged to stay put and not move. Moore said it’s important for a lost person to find shelter immediately, especially in the cold, but moving too far will only spread their scent more widely. They can also walk away from the search and rescue team without knowing it.
In many cases, efficient search and rescue makes the difference between life and death. Over more than a decade of dealing with K-9s, Moore has seen a few instances where the missing person was found too late. Before people leave their homes for the forest, Moore recommends they be armed with a flashlight, fire starting tools, and a fully charged cell phone to avoid life-threatening circumstances.
Moore said the importance of search and rescue to the community goes beyond cases of lost Recreators. The Osceola County Sheriff’s Department sees missing people with dementia and Alzheimer’s fairly regularly. These individuals usually migrate from their homes out of confusion, sometimes venturing outside their country of residence.
When a hunter, cross-country skier, or snowshoeer ventures into the outdoors, it is on purpose, and their clothing and accessories will reflect that. But a dementia or Alzheimer’s patient is unlikely to be prepared for extreme conditions, putting them at greater risk of winter hypothermia or summer heatstroke.
Cadillac Post covers a five-county region, so Unterbrink has worked on his fair share of search and rescue cases involving the elderly. He said they occur about as often, if not more often, than lost hunters.
Regardless of the time, place, weather conditions, or the missing person, Avery said a K-9-trained dog will be capable of a search and rescue. Technology is always changing, and it’s not without flaws, he said, but dogs will continue to follow the same instincts they’ve had for thousands of years, making them the most reliable tool in the department.
“We get new phones about every year because they’re always new, but there’s never been a device that can replace what a dog can do, so that’s pretty impressive,” he said.
While Avery encourages hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts not to get lost, it can be beneficial for them to learn more about the effort that goes into search and rescue training so they can better respond when the situation arises . He said they could also make donations to the department’s search and rescue team to support continued training and keep the unit running.