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Coquitlam searcher gets provincial medal for years of volunteering

Michael Coyle gets Governor General honour in Victoria

Michael Coyle never gave a moment’s thought to getting a public honour for efforts to find dozens of missing hikers in the woods around the Tri-Cities.

Instead, the veteran Coquitlam Search and Rescue volunteer was consumed with the task at hand — long-lining injured hikers off the side of a mountain, developing software to aid local searchers, managing a team from the team’s mobile command truck.

But this week, Coyle stood among some of the most distinguished British Columbians who have dedicated their lives to service for others and was humbled.

During a ceremony at Government House in Victoria, Coyle was one of a number of individuals recognized for their dedication and commitment. And for Coyle, who has spent 20 years volunteering for rescue missions with the Coquitlam SAR team, it was an enjoyable, if unnerving experience.

“It’s quite intimidating to be in a room full of people getting an award for volunteering. There’s a lot of the impostor syndrome,” Coyle said.

Still, he said he was pleased to accept the honour given by Canada’s Governor General and hopes other members of the BC Search and Rescue Association will be nominated for the medal in coming years.

“I was proud to be representing SAR and, at the time, I was thinking there are many other members of the search and rescue community that are just as eligible for this award,” Coyle told The Tri-City News.

Coyle is well-known in the community for often being the spokesperson for Coquitlam SAR, and though he started out nearly two decades ago as a searcher, and later trained in helicopter rescues, the software developer is often more involved behind the scenes, helping with technological advances, fundraising or managing searches.

Recently, he has had to step back from some of the more physical aspects of the work as he suffers from polycystic kidney disease (PKD) and recent bloodwork suggested he needs a new kidney.

Coyle’s Facebook page shows he’s very much involved in raising awareness of the disease when he isn’t on some adventure with his wife and son.

Still, the trip to Victoria was a highlight, and he’s grateful to his nominator, Coquitlam SAR president Tom Zajak.

“It’s an honour to have the team think of you that way.”

The memory will stand along some some notable rescues that Coyle admits were emotionally taxing. Sometimes, a rescue will be successful, such as last year's fruitful search for Coquitlam dog walker Annette Poitras, who was found after two nights in the back woods, or the complex search to find two special needs women, Joy Zhang and her friend, Judy. Zhang was found more than two days after she went missing, thanks to information provided by Judy, but the rescue was emotional and took a toll, Coyle said. 

“The longer she was missing, the more people worried,” he recalls.

The woman was found in the woods near the Diez Vistas trail.

Another search memory seared in Coyle’s brain was not so positive. Coyle recalls helping in the search, and later recovering the bodies, of two SFU students who got lost during a walk off campus. 

“They left the university and they took a wrong turn and they walked off the trail and they fell off the cliff on the north side of the hill,” Coyle said of the 2006 tragedy.

In each case, the level of community support was huge, he said, and search teams are often aided by other volunteers. Helping to bring closure to a family is an important aspect of the volunteer post, he said.

As Coyle continues his journey, supporting Coquitlam SAR from the administration side, whether helping manage a search, fundraising or speaking to the media, he says he has enjoyed being part of a team with a strong mission to help others.

And the Sovereign’s medal, although impressive, is — for the unassuming, hard-working volunteer and community member — merely the icing on the cake.