North Shore Rescue: If You Get Lost Today, Will Anyone Know?
By Allen Billy
Published by FriesenPress 2020
For anyone who has ever been associated with – or helped – by one of British Columbia’s many volunteer search and rescue (SAR) groups, and especially for anyone who has hiked or skied in Vancouver’s North Shore mountains, this is a must read. The book provides insight into Canada’s premier SAR group from its origins as a post-war civil defense organization to what we are familiar with today. It was especially interesting for me as I was a member of the fledgling Prince George SAR group from 1978 to 1983, a time when many of today’s search management techniques were being developed. Things have changed a lot since then. More people are accessing and getting into trouble in the backcountry, increased use of helicopters and other modern technology aids for SAR tasks, and of course, the ubiquitous use of mobile phones and satellite communication devices that have almost taken the ‘search’ out of ‘search and rescue.’ This is especially the case in the lower mainland where challenging and sometimes dangerous terrain directly overlooks the city, often with a good cell signal.
‘North Shore Rescue’ gets off to a strong start as it describes the geographical setting and what it takes to survive there should you get lost or injured. The book then grapples with the nuts and bolts of the group’s history, evolution, inter-agency work, structure, gear, transportation, financing, training, personnel, and personal relationships. A hundred pages in, the pace quickens as it dives into operational stories.
What makes the book stand out is its collection of anecdotes from past and present members of the organization, woven around the author’s narrative thread. Billy makes it clear that he is not interested in checking the veracity of contributions, choosing to leave that to professional historians; nor of editing the sometimes colourful language and political incorrectness. In short, he was not willing to purge, filter, edit or remove the voice of SAR volunteers “…no matter how earthy their language may be.” And while many contributions are attributed, quite a few are marked ‘name withheld’ at the request of the contributor; but all are clearly from the heart. Those who stay involved with this kind of volunteer work over periods of many years often have large personalities, and the resulting dynamic and team camaraderie shines through in these contributions.
The approach of letting it all hang out gives the reader a refreshing insight into what it was, and can still be like to be part of a team, hiking and searching at night in steep, difficult and often dangerous terrain. While many of the operations result in happy outcomes, some do not, and the narratives and expressed sentiments are typically matter-of-fact, and sometimes graphic. For example, the horrific aftermath of debris torrents on the Sea-to-Sky Highway where some people drove around others who were frantically trying to wave them down, and into the abyss.
The book winds down by discussing specialty teams (dive, canine, kayak, helicopter) and mutual aid operations with other BC and U.S. SAR groups. This is followed by perspectives from search managers, witnesses, subjects and their relatives. It ends with a review of awards and recognition and a discussion on the future of SAR teams in BC, especially the crucial role of unpaid public volunteers versus more costly alternatives of private and/or professional teams.
‘North Shore Rescue’ is an important book that gives insight into the many varied and sometimes colourful characters who volunteer their time to the community, often at a cost to their personal and professional lives as they respond to callouts at the most inconvenient times. While bad things can happen to anyone in the outdoors, no matter how experienced, the book may help educate and reduce such incidents through more people being better equipped and aware of what they’re doing and the consequent impacts on others. The timing of the book is propitious as BC communities are increasingly wrestling with emergency preparedness vis-à-vis ongoing and future pandemics, increased prevalence of wildfire and floods resulting from a changing climate, and the ever-present danger of a major earthquake on the Cascadia fault that will one day devastate the Pacific Northwest.
‘North Shore Rescue: If You Get Lost Today, Will Anyone Know?’ by Allen Billy; FriesenPress, 2020; 330 pages; Retail Paperback $28.24; ISBN: 978-1-5255-8062-8.