Bryan Courtois has volunteered with a search and rescue team in southern Maine for 30 years, helping the Maine Warden Service find people lost in the wild.
His most grueling rescue came in 1996 at Saddleback Mountain when a woman participating in a group hike he was leading fell and broke her leg. Before there were mobile phones to call for help, Courtois, then 32, made the crucial decision to evacuate her and not wait for help. He carried the 150-pound woman down the mountain on her back for eight hours.
His efforts may have saved the woman’s life.
“I stoked his leg. But it was cold, wet and rainy, so we didn’t want to stay put,” Courtois said. “I had straps on and made a sling, which was pretty much over my shoulders. Hypothermia was definitely on my mind. I knew we had to get out. And we did what we had to do.”
Courtois is one of several hundred volunteers across the state who assist with search and rescue teams. Their help can make the difference in finding a lost person, rescuing an injured hiker, or recovering the body of a deceased person to help close a family.
“They mean a lot to us,” said sergeant. Maine Warden Service’s Josh Bubier.
Since 2016, the Guardian Service has responded to an average of 465 searches per year in the woods and on the waters of Maine, Boubier said. The number of searches has increased slightly as more people have embraced outdoor activities during the pandemic, he said.
Those rescued by the guard service are not charged. And not all of these calls drive large-scale searches, Bubier noted.
The caretaker service calls for search and rescue teams and coordinates them. These teams of volunteers assist the guards on about 5 percent of Guardian searches — or 10 to 30 calls a year, Bubier said.
Yet these two or so calls a month are for volunteers who leave their homes, sometimes in the middle of the night, or head into the woods for an entire night.
At any given search, the goalkeeping department will typically have between three and 30 goalkeepers on the pitch – with an average of around 10 to 12, Bubier said. When needed, volunteer search and rescue teams send two to three times as many people.
Maine’s 15 volunteer search and rescue teams are trained in how to conduct a grid search (where people fan out to search an area) and how to stabilize a person in critical condition and get them out of the wild safely.
There are about 200 certified search and rescue team members and leaders within the Maine Association for Search and Rescue, said Courtois, who is president of Pine Tree Search and Rescue and director of education and chief education officer. MASAR research team. He estimated that there were about double the number of uncertified people in training.
To become a certified SAR team member, trainees must complete a search and rescue course and have basic first aid and CPR training. Trainees who are not yet certified are permitted to attend searches as long as there is one MASAR certified search team member for every two trainees, they have first aid/CPR training and have passed a basic fitness test.
Search team leaders are required to have wilderness first aid or better, so when they see a broken leg or ankle or a possible trauma situation at the top of a mountain peak, they know how to handle it and get the person out of the backcountry.
Matt Lint is a member of both the Highland Search and Rescue Team and the 53-year-old Dirigo SAR team in the Bangor area, the oldest team in the state. At 32, he has already been a SAR responder for 22 years – having started in Dirigo’s youth team when he was 12. He remembers very well a Baxter State Park Rescue a dozen years ago for a “double dislocation” on Katahdin, horrible as that sounds.
“What happened was a man fell between two rocks and his backpack got stuck and his shoulders hit the top of his head,” Lint said. “His shoulders weren’t where they were supposed to be. After we got to him, it probably took us 12 hours to get him (Katahdin) down to Katahdin Stream. Every little bump or rock we stepped on, he was moaning He was in a lot of pain.”
Lint received the call at his home in Orono at 6 p.m. He returned home from the mission at 8 a.m. the next morning. An avid outdoorsman who works as a pastry chef at the University of Maine, Lint loves the pay-for-pay reward.
He goes with his two search and rescue teams to camp on standby in Baxter State Park four weekends a year. Last year they got a call every time they were there.
“Once there were two guys coming off the mountain and one of them was dehydrated. It was 9 p.m. and he was walking very slowly and was sweaty and pale. At first I thought he might be in a heart condition. But by the time we arrived he was still moving and talking. He was so fed up. He was slow. We brought him water, electrolytes. He ended up sleeping in his car that night,” Lint said.
Ed Pontbriand served in search and rescue teams for 42 years, including serving as a ranger for the National Park Service in Glacier and Teton National Parks. When he retired in 2014 and moved to Bridgton, he helped start the Wilderness Rescue Team which has members from southern and central Maine.
Pontbriand said rescues are often long, up to 12 to 15 hours, but sometimes you’re also lucky and a doctor arrives. He’s seen it happen a few times — like during a rescue call at Baxter State Park several years ago, when a teenage girl hiking in Katahdin with a camp impaled herself on a iron bar on the Hunt Trail after falling.
“Luckily a doctor was coming down and within 10 minutes was in sight. He patched her up so she wasn’t bleeding anymore,” Pontbriand said. “I was at the ranger station and a girl came running shouting. Cell phone service there was very poor. So I gathered all the information and went up with a SAR team to take him away. I arrived around 9am and got off around 8pm just before dark.
Steve Hudson joined the Mount Desert Island search and rescue team in 1987 after working on an ocean-going vessel and becoming proficient in rigging. That experience came in handy in assisting with rope rescues, a skill he now teaches.
Hudson, now a boat builder in Steuben, said tThe MDI search and rescue team carried out 20 to 30 rescues a year, but last year there were 50.
The most grueling search and rescue mission he has been on was 29 years ago, when his team went in search of a mountain climber who fell from Great Head, the cliff next to Sand Beach in the Acadia National Park.
It was October night when the team lowered Hudson with a 40-foot rope down the cliff to search for the victim. He hung about 40 feet above the crashing ocean for 20 minutes trying to find the man.
“I was on a (rope) system that I trusted and I trusted the people putting me down. It didn’t change the fact that I had come down close to the surf and it was coming in very hard. I was very scared,” Hudson said. “The climber drowned. But we didn’t know that at the time. We just knew there was a person there. I was finally able to recognize that what I saw washing was a body, not equipment.