BOWDOIN – When someone in Maine is declared “missing,” the women of the Mid Maine Equestrian Search and Rescue Unit prepare to tack up their horses, load on the bright orange packs that hold their first aid and survival gear, and head into the woods.
“Last year we were called out seven times,” said Rachel Jalbert of Monmouth as she prepared her Arabian mare Misty for a training session Saturday. Seven other women from the unit were around her grooming their horses and getting ready to search for “Cardboard Jones,” a cardboard cutout affectionately nicknamed “C.B.”
C.B. was tucked away in the woods behind trainer Dave Woodin’s home off Litchfield Road. The riders were expected to go out in teams to find him by following a series of planted clues.
Jalbert, a customer service representative for the Sun Journal, has been with the search and rescue unit since its formation in 1999. The group was incorporated and began helping with rescue missions in 2000. She has been out in search of missing persons including runaway teens, Alzheimer’s patients and even a hunter who disappeared in the woods in wintertime after learning he had a brain tumor.
“It was cold when we were out there – they had snow,” she said, adding that the man had not wanted to be a burden to his family after learning of his illness. “The dog handlers found him. All he did was lie on the side of the road and he froze.”
The Mid Maine group is the only mounted search and rescue unit in the state since a unit from Bangor disbanded. They will travel anywhere they’re needed, from York County to the Canadian border.
They have yet to rescue anyone, Jalbert says, but they’ve come close.
All of the riders are volunteers, and they buy their own gear and pay for all expenses apart from radios and mileage to a rescue site.
Vicki Austin of Hartford is a relatively new member of the unit. She said she was prepared for four rescue calls that came through last summer, but the missing persons were found before her horse was trailered.
“It’s good for the person, but bad for us because we don’t get to rescue anyone,” she said ruefully.
Her American Indian horse, a short, stout appaloosa named Indian Smoke Sign, nosed around for treats while being groomed. It was Indian Smoke Sign’s first day of rescue training, and Austin hoped it would help prepare the mare for the state rescue certification process.
“They have to do things like be tethered out all night and not fuss,” Austin said. And they have to tolerate things like loud noises and strangers without horse experience getting on and off their backs.
Riders also go through a certification process, and Austin recalled spending a day and night alone in the woods, and cooking her own breakfast.
Dave Woodin is a retired police officer who became involved with the unit when buying his home from rescue President Janice Hatch (now of Harrison) a few years ago. He holds a search-and-rescue training session every year, recently with the help of Darryl Vannah of Litchfield, whose wife, Angie, is one of the unit’s riders.
Jalbert and Austin teamed up to hunt for C.B. on Saturday. They easily navigated a series of short trails, finding him and even noting he was missing a foot.
They asked Woodin whether he had run out of cardboard while making C.B., but learned the foot was there – the cutout’s leg had been bent back to indicate it was broken.
Riders have to go slowly into the woods and be observant, he told the group at the end of the session. They have to search for any clues that might be useful, like the empty shotgun shells he’d left strewn along the ground. Riders were told C.B. was bird hunting, and the shells – seen by only a couple of riders – were meant to help lead to his whereabouts.
An empty wallet with Woodin’s card was a decoy clue, and a glove and hat also were used to lead to C.B.
“You’ve just got to remember that speed isn’t of the essence here,” Vannah said. Instead, attention to detail is key.
“Last time,” Jalbert said, “Dave put a stand in a tree because (the missing person) was a hunter. We didn’t find it.”