The Midnight Mission: UTV Enabled Adventures and Memories
The Not-So-Basic Search and Rescue Academy
Words: Scott Hodgson
Photos: Scott Hodgson and VVSAR Archives
I was raised in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. I pretty much grew up as an off-roader. Dad went through several 4X4 pickups, and we had a few motorcycles. We were active in an off-road club called the Outbackers and my dad was involved with the Kern County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue team. Several of our family friends and members of the Outbackers were also law enforcement officers.
I feel fortunate to have grown up in an environment that fostered my respect and positive view toward members of the law enforcement community. As a kid and well into adulthood, my life mostly revolved around motorcycles. Racing desert, motocross, and even a few years racing speedway. I work in the powersports aftermarket industry. I have spent many years wearing many hats, but I have always been primarily focused on product development and testing suspension components for motorcycles, ATVs and side x sides. I’ve put in a lot of miles on many different vehicles. I also went through a few of my own 4X4 pickups along the way.
As the racing bug was fading, the off-roader in me was subconsciously searching for “the next thing” for my “spare time”. I had noticed, on a few occasions, Search and Rescue Booths at events like the San Bernardino County Fair. It took a few more years of spotting those booths and thinking to myself, “My dad did that and it seemed pretty cool, I ought to look into it.”
When I finally did some digging, I found that in San Bernardino County (where I live) there are a multitude of Search and Rescue teams. All of them are part of the San Bernardino County Sheriff Department’s Volunteer Forces. One of the closest teams to my house was an off-road team, Victor Valley Search and Rescue, equipped with Side x Sides, ATVs and 4X4s! I contacted the Team and went through the application process.
Once I was sworn in, but before I could be deployed into the field, they put me through a Basic Search and Rescue Academy (BSAR). Training on the basic skills needed to be safe and effective in the field. Survival, tracking, first aid, navigation (UTM coordinate system), radio communications, incident command, evidence handling and search methods. With a BSAR certificate in hand, I was then able to take additional training to gain the necessary certificates in EVOC (Emergency Vehicle Operation), ROV (Recreational Off-Highway Vehicles or Side x Side) and ATV to fully support our team’s specialty – Off-Road.
At first, I must admit that it seemed silly to me to take the ROV and ATV classes with my years of experience, but we can always learn things and in the end they were well worth the time. There are many more certificates and so much specialty training available to all team members too, including Alpine Winter Awareness, Basic Mountaineering, Helitac (Helicopter insertion and extraction) etc. So, when do I get to go on a mission? I’m sworn, I’m certified in the basics and then some. I’m ready, when can I go?
When the Sheriff’s department calls for assistance, we go. The call goes to the team commander who notifies the team members over a group messaging app. ***SEARCH SEARCH SEARCH*** All who can respond report back to the commander, put on their uniform, gather their personal gear, and head to the team’s station. Once at the station, we load equipment for the mission and head out.
The types of missions come in a wide variety. From lost or overdue hikers, missing off-roaders, injured person(s) in remote hard-to-access locations, missing persons in urban or rural areas, to criminal evidence searches or even searches for human remains. Many of these searches use the combined skills of many teams working together. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department – Search and Rescue Teams include; off-road teams, dog teams, mounted posse, technical rope teams (mountains), cave teams and dive teams.
One memorable mission we were called into action for took place in the Juniper Flats area of Apple Valley California. Victor Valley Search and Rescue responded, and we were assisted by members of the Apple Valley Posse, no horses with them on that night though.
Late on a cold and rainy night in the dead of a High Desert winter. The team’s messaging app sounded off. Rescue operation for “a single individual, trapped inside a stranded vehicle. Location coordinates known, Deep Creek area in muddy ravine.” I called the team’s commander to respond and set about gathering my gear for a cold and wet night out in the desert. I considered that it would be a rather quick in-and-out operation since we already “know” the location of our subject, but missions often take unexpected turns. So, I made sure I had my waterproof gear, plenty of water, snacks, and spare dry clothes to go along with my 24-hour pack and winter gear bag.
I made my way to the station and met up with the rest of the team. Due to the rainy weather, difficult terrain and the number of us responding to the call, we loaded up our Polaris Ranger Crew into one of our trailers and headed out with two rigs. That trailer would also serve as the command post (CP) on this night’s adventure. On the hour-long drive to the designated command post location, we learned we would be joined by the Apple Valley Posse, for additional support. They brought along their own Ranger side x side as well.
Once we all arrived at the designated CP location, we were met by a couple of deputy sheriffs to brief us more fully on the situation and to provide the coordinates of our subject. Afterwards, we gathered inside our trailer to discuss our plan of attack. At the command post, a few members remained there to function as Incident Command. They call the shots once the plan is in motion. As the mission progresses the team members in the field report their findings and suggestions back to the CP, but the CP directs the next steps. The rain intensified and running water and mud were all around us. The temperature also dropped down to the upper 30s.
Three of us headed out in our Ranger, Joel was the driver, I was the navigator and Mike was our medic. Apple Valley Posse, Team 2, in their Side by Side followed for quite a while until we reached the top of the ridge. They stopped and remained there for a time to function as a radio relay. We use VHF handheld radios in the field which are basically line-of-sight communications, so we knew the area well enough to hold a unit there for a relay.
We continued down into the valley, winding our way down into the downpour of rain and darkness towards the provided coordinates. As we continued to make our way, we noticed a helicopter overhead with its powerful searchlight sweeping the floor of the valley below. That valley floor was still well below us, we could only see the inverted funnel of hazy light below the helicopter. We are fortunate to be supported on many of our missions by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s helicopter crews.
As the rain continued to intensify and the chopper was running low on fuel, we were soon alone in the wet darkness. We made our way toward the coordinates which we determined were up on a hillside near the trail we had taken to get as close as possible. We could see no signs from our Ranger, so Joel and I decided to go up the hillside on foot to see if we could find anything around the coordinates provided. Nothing, nada…no vehicle, no footprints, no nothing.
As Joel and I slogged back down the muddy hillside to the Ranger, we could hear on the radio that another unit had arrived at the top of the ridge to take over as radio relay so that Team 2 could head into the valley to meet back up with us and continue what had now become a full-on search. Once Joel and I had made it back to our Ranger, I asked him to radio the CP (via the relay) to request permission to search an area about a mile to a mile and a half south of our current location.
I explained to Joel that I was familiar with the area, from using it for product testing as well as trail riding with my buddies, and that I had, on more than one occasion, come across cars stuck in a couple of locations just south of us. The area is popular with those who want to visit the nearby Deep Creek Hot Springs. The problem is the terrain is not suited for cars and getting to the hot springs involves a lengthy hike once you run out of road.
Upon getting the CP’s OK through the relay, and together with Team 2, we headed south to the first of two areas that I suggested we check out. The first area is a wide trail that leads to a ridge where many hot springs visitors park to then hike down to their destination. That trail continues over the ridge and quickly descends into a very steep and rutted downhill run into a wash. With the continued rain, running water and mud all around us, we parked, and I walked down the trail far enough to get a good look at the bottom, but nothing.
I returned to the top, gave the others the news (which was also communicated back to the CP), hopped back into the Ranger, and headed toward the second location. Making a left turn from the main trail onto an off-camber uphill run with a deep rut with rushing muddy water to our right we continued up. Up and still sweeping to the left as this trail climbed toward another ridge. About halfway up this curved trail our sight finally caught the silhouette of a vehicle against the darkness. Taillights were weakly glowing and as we approached, we could also make out fogged-up windows. “THAT’S HIM!” The three of us exclaimed.
Pulling alongside the subjects’ vehicle with Team 2 right there with us, we walked around the vehicle to assess its stability. It was oriented uphill, in line with the trail, heavily tilted with the off-camber slope and the right-side wheels buried in the muddy rut. A member from Team 2, Matt, was able to get one of the vehicle’s doors open and speak with the occupant, confirming that he was indeed the person we were looking for. Joel radioed the relay to provide the CP with our status update which included the UTM coordinates of the subject’s location. I could overhear part of Matt’s conversation with the subject:
“Are you injured?”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Near the trail to the hot springs?”
I remember thinking, cool we found him, he’s healthy, let’s get him into one of the Rangers and back to the CP, so he can get whatever additional assistance he may need. Suddenly, I heard Matt call out to us saying: “He says his girlfriend left 2 hours ago on foot!” My heart sank.
It was now past midnight, the temperature had dropped, and the rain was turning into slush, not full-on snow but close, it was cold! Moments ago, we were in the final stages of a rescue, now we find out we have a second individual on foot with a two-hour head start in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, in a frigid storm.
Our subject told us that his girlfriend had no cell phone and that she had told him that she was “going to follow the power lines out,” and that she started out by heading up the hill from the vehicle. Well, at least we had her direction of travel and a clue about her plan. For a search scenario, the most valuable bits of information include LKP (Last known Position), direction of travel and details about the subject such as name, clothing etc. We had all of that and her plan.
We decided that we would get our first subject into Team 2’s rig, getting him wrapped up with some blankets and a tarp to keep him warm and as dry as possible. I filled everyone in on how we could search along the way toward the power lines until our turn-off to head back to the CP with subject #1. We agreed that getting him back was our priority and if we found the girlfriend along the way, great. If not, we would head back out immediately upon dropping him off.
We headed up the hill from the stranded vehicle, over the top and along the ridge. Driving slowly and looking for footprints in the mud. Loose muddy slime…no footprints, so we kept looking slow and steady. We learned of the advantages of night tracking in BSAR. One of the main benefits was that with a light source coming in from a low angle (headlights in this case)impressions like footprints are easier to see due to the shadows cast by the low angle of illumination.
Nothing yet though. As we head off the ridge to the valley below our headlights illuminate something off in the distance and well off the trail. We veer off the trail and head toward it. Squinting in the illuminated darkness as we approached, we tried to identify what it may be. Something or someone pale in color, lying on the ground…
“Are those legs?”
“Oh my God”
“Are you kidding me?”
Cue the nervous laughter. We share a quick sigh of relief, draw deep breaths, and get back to work.
A couple miles down the trail we picked up the power line road. Rocky, wet and muddy, still looking for footprints or any other clues that we were on the same path as the girlfriend. One mile after another, I knew we were getting close to where we needed to turn off to get to the CP, still looking for clues…nothing but muddy slime. Ugh, missed the turn. Suddenly Joel yells out, “Look, footprints!” They’re in front of the Ranger in the muck and glow of the headlight, footprints. They were heading toward us? Very fresh and seemingly washing away as we observed them somewhere around 1:30 am.
We carefully turned around, picked up the tracks and slowly followed them back downhill toward our missed turn-off. As we approached our turn-off, we lost the tracks, washed away by the muddy water flowing down the power line road hill. Suddenly in the distance, we hear a voice calling out, crying out. We yelled at each other.
“Turn off your machine, turn it off!”
“Did you hear that?”
Silence…and then “Help! Here! Here! Help!” Flashlight beams were sweeping in the direction of her voice. “There she is!” someone called. We spotted her and everyone headed in her direction. She was taking shelter from the weather under a huge greasewood bush, nearly invisible in her dark water-soaked clothing. We told her who we were, that we had been looking for her, and that we had her boyfriend as well. We walked her down to the power line road and over to the rigs.
Then, wrapped her in blankets and put her in the back of Team 2’s Ranger next to her boyfriend. We drove them both back to the CP where they were thoroughly checked by awaiting EMTs and questioned by local law enforcement. We loaded our Ranger, kicked off as much mud as we could, got the OK to leave the scene, thanked the Apple Valley Posse crew and headed back to the station. Cold and wet but happy to have been successful, X2. Our job was done, it was a good night!
Victor Valley Search and Rescue: “So Others May Live.”
To learn more about Victor Valley Search and Rescue, visit https://vvsar.org/
To learn about Search and Rescue and other opportunities to volunteer in your area, contact your local law enforcement or government agencies.
For San Bernardino County visit https://wp.sbcounty.gov/sheriff/divisions/volunteer-forces/