Explorers provide valuable search-and-rescue help

Mackinley Holt, right, and his friend and fellow WESAR member Noah Flaherty take a chilly break during certification training in 2010.  - Courtesy photo
Mackinley Holt, right, and his friend and fellow WESAR member Noah Flaherty take a chilly break during certification training in 2010.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

For 17-year-old Mackinley Holt, the Washington Explorer Search and Rescue (WESAR) program is many things. It’s the thrill of the search. It’s the opportunity to spend time outdoors. It’s helping strangers stuck in a precarious position.

It’s also a family affair.

Holt and his older brother Nicholas, 20, signed up for the all-volunteer Kitsap unit in October 2010. The following year his father, Tom, 42, and sister Sophie, 15, also joined the outdoor service organization.

“My sister thought that it would be kind of cool,” Holt said. “My dad just wanted to see how it was — make sure it was OK for her. Now he’s hooked.”

Certified WESAR members assist Kitsap County and statewide agencies with searches for missing persons and evidence recovery, as well as helping during natural disasters. Started in 1978, the Explorer group has 120 members on call.

“When the sheriff’s office goes out and they can’t find something and it looks like it will be a bigger search, they call us,” Holt said.

The Port Orchard family isn’t the only family volunteering for WESAR Kitsap County, said organization board member and treasurer Dr. Ronda Luce. More than a couple of the on-call WESAR volunteers are closely related. Something about the call to search for a missing person and help area communities draws in bloodlines.

“Whole families join,” said Luce, a retired Navy doctor. “We teach leadership and independence that is good for any age.”

Of course, getting to join the group is no easy task. In order for volunteers to become certified, they have to complete a seven-month training period that entails one weekend a month from October to April. Trainees learn everything from basic map and compass techniques to snow camping skills and avalanche safety. Luce said the challenging training weekends during the winter months are akin to joining the National Guard.

“We started with 40 and now we’re down to about 13 people still in the program,” Luce said of this year’s trainee class.

Holt agreed that the training was tough, recalling a November overnight trip when the temperature didn’t get much above 20 degrees. But for those who stick it out, there’s a sense of reward not found in many other places.

“I really didn’t know what it would be like,” Holt said, noting that he and his brother joined the group on the advice of a friend. “I just love it. Every call-out I love it more and more. You’re doing something to help.”

Each year, WESAR and the unit’s associated dog handler team, All Breed Canine Search and Rescue, respond to at least a dozen calls from the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office and statewide law enforcement agencies to help in a variety of missions. Anything from searching for stolen watches from a murder suspect in the woods to looking for a lost Alzheimer’s patient, WESAR does it.

Since half the group is made up of minors, Luce said proper training is important because searchers can — and often do — come upon a dead body. The Holt family was part of the search last weekend for South Kitsap resident Paul Breeding, who was found dead in the woods behind his house.

“You have to make sure they’re ready to do something like that,” Luce said. “You sit down and chat with the young ones. You make sure they’re aware of the realities.”

Both Luce and Holt agreed that the responsibility and trust bestowed by older volunteers to the young ones is part of what makes volunteering for the group special. Holt said that teens as young as 14 can go out on missions, and that a priority of the group is to help teenagers lead, often giving them authority as team captains. Luce said she has seen young people come in to the program who are timid and unsure of the themselves, only to leave with a new sense of empowerment.

“We’ve turned some very nice young people into lions and tigers and bears,” she said.

Though Holt has only found a watch in an evidence search, he’s excited to get out there each time to find more. He’s heard  from other group members, including some from Luce, who has been in search and rescue organizations for more than 20 years.

She said there have been a lot of interesting moments with the Kitsap WESAR, some bad and some good. If there’s anything she’s learned, though, it’s to test your instincts. Luce speaks of one time an Alzheimer’s patient had wandered away from his care facility in North Kitsap. The sheriff’s office told search teams to search in town, because that’s where the man had a tendency to wander. Instead, she followed her dog and her instincts to the beach.

“Sometimes you have to trust your gut and go contrary to what everyone is telling you,” she said.

WESAR units found the man on the beach, and he had fallen down the high-tide line and couldn’t get up as the tide was coming in. They managed to rescue him and warm him up before the worst happened. Had they headed to town though, it would be a different scenario.

“That case ended out good,” she said. “Sometimes, they don’t.”

Holt has responded to eight searches and has never found a deceased, but said he could handle if need be. It’s all in attempt to help the community, and every so often, find those who lose their way.

That is, if his 15-year-old sister doesn’t find them first.








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