Things were a lot different on Judy Burch’s first day with the Salt Spring Search and Rescue group.
Burch is the longest-standing member of the group, having started as a founding member of the first branch on the island in 1989. Burch at the time was working as a counsellor in the school system. Through her work she saw a need for more education for kids about how to be safe in the woods.
“I work with kids in the school, so I saw a need there with the children. It was something I just sort of tried and I loved it,” she said.
For 16 years, beginning in 2001, she was the coordinator and presenter for the national Hug-A-Tree program on the island. The program is presented every year in local schools, giving kids the tools they need to successfully stay safe if they ever get lost in the woods. She also helped expand the program to the public, offering evening courses to people in the community and especially seniors.
As the years went on, Burch developed a love for tracking, and became one of the organization’s highest-rated trackers. Though to some people tracking may seem like an esoteric skill that is a combination of magic, mystery and luck, Burch explained that it is as easy as going for a walk in your backyard.
“All you do is go outside in your back yard and walk. Then you go around and see if you can find where you’ve walked,” she said. “It’s really an important skill for searchers. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. It’s a challenge. You know they went that way, but can you prove it? Can you find where they went?”
Tracking helps decrease the length of time needed to find the subject. Instead of having a group of searchers fan out in all directions, a skilled tracker helps pinpoint the direction of travel and allows the rescuers to quickly zero in on their target.
“They can be anywhere if you think about it. If you walk into Mouat Park, then they could be anywhere,” she explained. “You could send out a whole bunch of teams, but you’re wasting a whole bunch of time. The person may need help right away. For example, with our elderly people who can wander away at times, we want to get to them quick.”
After approaching 31 years on the team, Burch has lately been slowing down with her commitments. She does not spend as much time out on rope calls or crawling around on cliffs, but she still has an active and important role to play. Manning the radio, working in the background, teaching new recruits and helping kids are still important parts of the job that Burch is happy to do. Burch has had a few recognitions for her long service, but she says the real reward is the feeling of finding a lost child in the woods.
“I’ve been around so long, they had to do something with me. It’s always nice to be recognized,” she said. “I’d rather just be out there in the woods, finding a kid, grabbing them and hugging them . . . I’d rather do that.”