Rescuers called to find people lost in Mesa County's vast desert or towering mesas regularly hear a similar sentiment from the people they help, almost always delivered sheepishly:
"I'm so embarrassed."
Don’t be, say the volunteers of the Mesa County Search and Rescue Ground Team. As Nathan Smithgall puts it, they all joined for a reason.
“I believe it was my calling, helping your fellow man out in times of need,” said Smithgall, 31.
Wearing his New England Patriots-themed Santa hat, he was gathered with dozens of other members, all in matching, bright-red jackets, in downtown Grand Junction. The annual Parade of Lights was about to start. They’d brought a few ATVs, a boat and truck, as well as their backpacks, festooned with little lights and still filled with supplies — because they never know when they’ll need to spring into action.
One year, much of the team actually did have to tear off their lights and rush from the parade to someone’s aid.
The team typically goes on more than 60 missions a year, often responding to a 911 call made from the backcountry. Every county in Colorado is responsible for coordinating its search-and-rescue services, and while there are a few other specialized volunteer teams that do this work in Mesa, the ground team is the main one.
Jeanine Camp, who joined six years ago at age 50, saw the team as a perfect outlet after her kids left home. She’s been training her German shepherds, Rusty and Roxanne, to help out, as well.
She really loves that moment during a search after she’s been calling for someone, looking high and low for them, when all of sudden she hears their small, relieved voice.
“It makes me so happy,” she said, beaming.
Her most memorable mission? It had to be when a dog fell 30 feet down a tight crevasse. At 5-feet 2 inches, Camp knew she was one of few people small enough to help.
“And so I'm trying to get down in this crevasse, and I'm actually shoving myself down into this crevasse, and when I'm doing this, I'm thinking, ‘This is, like, really super stupid.’”
It was so narrow she couldn’t even wear her helmet. She could barely wear her glasses. She imagined herself getting stuck for days, with team members having to lower food, and the whole thing becoming a sensation on the nightly news. But finally, she and another petite woman were able to inch their way down to that black lab, happily wagging his tail. They fastened a harness around him, and out he came.
All was fine, but her teammates did have a plan in case she had stuck: pouring down cooking oil to help slide her out.
No matter what, “I was gonna rescue that dog,” Camp said, with a big laugh. “And we did!”
Her joy was infectious, a balance to all the time — and money — volunteers spend. While Mesa County has had search-and-rescue services for generations, when the ground team started in 2001, it changed the game. The team instituted frequent training sessions and annual fitness reviews, and the search members can claim mileage, but when it comes to their personal equipment, that’s on their dime. As they juggle their daily lives, families and jobs, they know a call for help can come any time.
So often that time is inopportune, explained Tom Crawford, who sports a wild, red beard. Maybe the call comes on a quiet Sunday evening after he’s just put his clothes in the washer, or it’s at 2 a.m. and “you’re flying out of bed,” said the 45-year-old, chuckling.
Crawford’s still in his first year on the team, and he’s already seen how vital it is to take those calls, like just recently, when a woman wrecked on her dirt bike, and was “pretty banged up,” and far from everything.
Crawford, whose nicknames include “the mountain goat” and the “Energizer Bunny,” grew up in Mesa County and knows its backcountry well. He and the rest of the crew were able to find the injured woman and get her safety.
“If it wasn’t for us, who knows how long she would have been up there,” Crawford said.
With floats backed up onto residential streets and marching bands standing in formation, the parade was about to start. In addition to tiny lights on her backpack, Donna Powelson, 60, had attached a stuffed reindeer and Grinch, just like every year.
“Look at all these people, already!” she exclaimed, as crowds bunched together on the sidewalks. The team started to move forward as people cheered. “Wow. Here we go!”
As they headed down Main Street, the crowds just got bigger. Powelson and the rest of the crew grabbed fistfuls of candy from the back of an ATV and handed them out.
Kids and adults alike were giving ecstatic, appreciative waves. Powelson kept waving back, over and over. The community’s gratitude means a lot, she explained, but it’s not what keeps her doing this.
“We don’t do it for honor. It’s not some hero thing. It’s just what we do,” she said.
The Mesa County Search and Rescue Ground Team is accepting applications from prospective new members until the end of the year. More information: https://mesacountysearchandrescue.org/
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