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Out and About

Lost and Found

When area hikers and others go astray, Mesilla Valley Search and Rescue and the Civil Air Patrol come to the rescue.

by Karen Ray



No one sets out on a hike intending to get lost. Nevertheless, sometimes they do and there are many groups of capable, concerned citizens out there on standby to help find them. Search and rescue groups come in all shapes and sizes, from canine search specialists and ATV crews to search planes and water recovery teams.

search and rescue
MVSAR volunteers in rough country.

Search and Rescue organizations (SAR) and their volunteer resources fit under the direction of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, specifically the state police. There are over 40 such organizations in New Mexico and surrounding states. Mesilla Valley SAR, founded in 1996, and Civil Air Patrol (CAP) are two Doña Ana County groups that have participated in many search efforts over the years.

Mesilla Valley Search and Rescue (MVSAR) often works with other rescue organizations when on assignment. It can be called out on missions anywhere in the state, depending on the need to expand the circle of searchers. Vic Villalobos, president of the group, says it is up to the State Police Field Coordinator which teams to pull onto a mission. Villalobos gets the initial call for MVSAR and then determines which resources will get a call-out. "I then call our individual team leaders…. depending on the resource they (state police) have requested… and we try to deploy within one hour. Once you get used to it it's not bad because you have all your gear set aside and everything ready to go."

Villalobos adds, "I've had people ask, 'Why do you do it?' and I ask them, 'Why don't you?'" He first became interested in search and rescue while serving in the Coast Guard, and has been involved with MVSAR since 1997. His day job is general sales manager of American Classifieds and producer of the Dog 'Cruces magazine and website ("Pet Project" April 2009).

The MVSAR team has at its disposal law enforcement, trackers, jeeps and ATVs, as well as the only canine team in southern New Mexico. "What makes our team fairly unique is that we can do a little bit of everything," Villalobos says. On average, they participate in 12-15 missions per year. "We'll go through spells where we don't have a search for three months" — then they'll get several in a row. In the fall it is primarily hunters and the summer usually involves swimmers who need rescuing.

There are 35 people on the MVSAR team, which consists of four specialized teams working together: the ground team, which does hiking and tracking; the canine team, which does air scenting and human remains detection; the ATV team; and the communications team, which mans a big base camp trailer with its own communications equipment. Part of the communications team's job, Villalobos says, is "to ensure that the searchers can communicate with the Incident Command staff at all times…. They are often positioned in various locations throughout the search area in order to serve as relays between teams in the field and Incident Command."

Aaron Goodman, ATV team leader, says, "Our team has run well over 200 missions. A very large percentage of those have been to find and rescue people who were just going for a short hike, oftentimes on an easy, very common and seemingly well-defined trail. It's true that people hike all the time with very little preparation and have no problems. It's also true that people get hurt and/or lost, more often than you'd think."


Which leads me to a bit of personal transparency: I too have been lost. I didn't need help getting found, but let me show you just how easy it is for even experienced hikers to become temporarily misplaced.

I had been exploring an eerily beautiful trail in the Gila, hiking in a drizzling summer rain. Passing through a lush water meadow that bore the imprints of elk who had bedded down there during the night, the trail meandered into an area overgrown with willows. The ground became spongy, the smell of leaf mold intense, as mist settled into a light ground fog. Ducking under a low-hanging branch, my hiking partner and I stared at the cliff face 15 feet in front of us. Abundant ferns grew from the rock face and shivered in the drops of water condensing on them in the humidity. A bird trilled somewhere up the tiny stream. Walking a few steps farther revealed a clear, warm waterfall, running down between ferns and mats of vegetation. A warm spring had turned this small plot of ground into a paradise, vibrant with every color of green.

After exploring what looked like a tiny piece of New Zealand, not New Mexico, I was ready to head back to camp for some hot tea and a good read. My hiking partner wanted to explore more. Parting ways, I started back. Several wildlife trails wound through the undergrowth and I looked carefully to find the one we had taken from the river. Finally, I found it and walked along, still daydreaming about this exceptional ecosystem tucked into the desert — only to realize my surroundings didn't look familiar. So I turned around and backtracked.

At this point I proceeded down a path of self-pity. I couldn't find the path back to where I was and had to find a new way forward. Then, laughing at myself, I began thinking metaphysical thoughts about my dilemma. I looked for the landmark water meadow but couldn't find it. Coming up out of a dry creek channel, I came upon the largest cottonwood tree I have ever seen: a dead giant that would take four people to encircle its base. It had thrived in this semi-tropical niche, probably tapping into the warm geothermal springs that feed this whole section of the valley. I knew we didn't go by this before and I was almost glad I'd gotten turned around, just for the chance to see this old beauty.

search and rescue
Vic Villalobos and Ruby after a long night searching.

Not laughing anymore, I knew it was no more than a quarter-mile to the river. I knew this but had become disoriented in the extremely dense undergrowth. I headed back to the cliff face and hollered at it for a few minutes, knowing I couldn't be heard because of all the running water and the sound-dampening wet ground. Resentful that I'd been taken at my word that I knew the trail and didn't need help, I gave up yelling, felt foolish, got mad, and determined to find my way back, in that order.

I knew I was within 200 yards of the river, so I put the big cottonwood behind me and headed across the valley. The river lay between one cliff at my back and another one I could just see over the treetops. This time I looked at the landmarks better, paying closer attention. This is a good life lesson, I thought. I stayed calm by rehearsing the cautionary tale I would tell at the campfire later. My half-grown children would laugh and shake their heads as I admit with chagrin that I didn't know all that and have learned the error of my ways.




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