The recent successful search for Annette Poitras, the dog walker who went missing for two nights on Eagle Mountain, highlighted the vast back country that exists along Coquitlam’s northern boundary. The Tri-City News wanted to shine a light on just a few of the 50-odd search and rescue volunteers who ensure the safety of the thousands of people who visit the area each year.
MICHAEL COYLE, 47
SAR member for 16 years • DAY JOB: Software developer
When Michael Coyle joined Coquitlam SAR in 2001, the mountain climber was eager to get into the field and search as often as possible. These days, Coyle said he is finding new ways to contribute to the team. While he is still an active participant in every aspect of search and rescue, the software developer is also busy coding computer programs that help make tasks easier for those in the field.
“That is rewarding in its own way,” he said. “I am not even on a search and the software I wrote is helping out.”
One of the programs he designed sends a text to a person lost in the woods telling them SAR is looking for them and to click the provided link. The link allows searchers to ping the phone using GPS, giving the team the person’s exact location.
He also gets satisfaction out of helping new SAR recruits learn and preparing them for their tasks, he said.
Coyle recites the three words one of their team members uses to describe what they are looking for in a volunteer: “Availability, affability and ability — in that order,” he said.
“If you aren’t available, it doesn’t matter how good you are. Affability is required for working as a team… Ability is last because we can teach people.”
STU FLEMING, 62
SAR member for two years • DAY JOB: retired police officer
A person can get lost in the woods at any time, in any season, which means Coquitlam SAR members have to always be ready to go. That’s OK with Stu Fleming.
As a retired Vancouver police officer, he and his family are accustomed to shift work that has him coming and going at all hours.
When Fleming retired from the force a few years ago, he wanted to stay active in the Tri-City community, where he has resided for more than 35 years. An outdoor enthusiast, he had a few friends on the SAR team who suggested he come on board. Fleming said he thought the skills he had picked up during his years on the force would benefit the group.
“There are certainly similarities,” he said. “You are dealing with people in a tough spot and you are able to help them out.”
Since joining the team less than two years ago, Fleming has participated in close to 25 searches, helping SAR teams on the North Shore and Vancouver Island. But his best moment so far was hearing over the radio two weeks ago that Annette Poitras, a dog walker who had been missing on Westwood Plateau for three days, was alive and well.
“To be out in the field and hear she is alive, it was just a feeling of euphoria.”
SAR member 14 years • DAY JOB: Works with kids with disabilities
As a lifelong Coquitlam resident, Wendi Harder is familiar with the hiking trails along the Tri-Cities’ northern boundary.
She was eight years old when her dad took her up Swan Falls — “which he probably shouldn’t have” — near Buntzen Lake, and the family was always canoeing and taking trips into the back country.
Harder’s love of the outdoors led her to Coquitlam SAR, where she has been an active team member since 2003.
It didn’t take long before she was hooked. She recalls an early rescue of a 70-year-old man who had wandered off the trail and suffered a fall. The team had been in the field for a few hours when, “out of sheer luck,” they came across the missing person at around 1 a.m. and were able to warm him up while waiting for daylight and a helicopter.
“You sort of know that if we weren’t there, he wouldn’t have made it,” she said. “It is a good feeling. It is a sense of satisfaction… Everything just happened right.”
SAR team members spend a lot of time together in the classroom and on searches. Harder said camaraderie is important for team cohesion and she even met her partner through SAR a few years ago.
“We are a big family,” she said. “People have everyone’s backs here. You have to respect and trust all the people that work here.”
ERICA McARTHUR, 38
SAR member for two years • DAY JOB: high school math teacher
When people find out Erica McArthur is a Coquitlam SAR member, they often ask whether she gets annoyed when people get lost in the back country. “It can really happen to anyone.”
During her two years with the team, she has seen people get caught in bad weather or get turned around and lose daylight. The 38-year-old Riverside secondary teacher said she feels privileged to be a part of the group tasked with bringing people home safely.
McArthur may teach Grade 12 math, but she also likes to learn. Fortunately for her, SAR members attend classroom sessions each week, constantly learning and refreshing their knowledge on everything from rope and avalanche rescues to swift-water rescues and identifying stages of hypothermia.
Many people in the community do not know how busy SAR members are, she said.
While the successful search of Poitras two weeks ago garnered a lot of media attention and is still fresh in the public’s mind, McArthur points out that the group has conducted two more tasks since then.
She added that she has always been drawn to team sports and, in many ways, SAR is not much different.
“This is an awesome team,” she said. “The people here are great.”
AIDON PYNE, 38
SAR member for two years • DAY JOB: Coquitlam city arborist
As a SAR team member with two years’ experience, Aidon Pyne doesn’t have to think for long when asked what is the biggest search he has been involved with.
The 38-year-old Coquitlam resident was one of the five team members who came upon Annette Poitras and the three dogs she had been huddled with for two nights. Pyne said he almost didn’t believe his ears when his group heard a faint call-out and animals barking on that rainy Wednesday morning two weeks ago.
“The hair stands up on the back of your neck,” he said. “It was totally an affirmation of why I do this. It was the warmest, fuzziest feeling you can have.”
After hours of walking and blowing whistles, searches can become disheartening, he said, noting that the recent success has taught him the importance of avoiding complacency.
“You can get downhearted,” he said. “But when someone calls back to you, you realize that that was the whistle that mattered… Every little piece you do might be the piece that puts it all together.”
Originally from Ontario, Pyne said his time with SAR has opened his eyes to the kinds of people who get lost.
“It can really happen to anybody,” he said. “Our backyard gets pretty real, pretty quick.”
DON SEKI, 56
SAR member for 35 years • DAY JOB: business owner
When Don Seki signed up to be a member of SAR back in 1982, the recruiter asked him two questions: Do you have a good pair of hiking boots and do you mind getting wet?
A commercial fisherman at the time, the 21-year-old Seki was accustomed to the rainy, west coast weather and had an abundance of appropriate footwear. “So they said, ‘OK, you’re in,” he said.
The recruitment process is a bit more rigorous these days. During the most recent intake, Coquitlam SAR had to wade through close to 100 applications to find six new members in training.
Most of the applicants share a love of the outdoors and want to give back to their community. It is that sense of helping people in need that drew Seki to SAR and, during his 35 years on the team, he has participated in more than 400 searches.
“I hate seeing people in trouble,” he said.
As a lifelong Coquitlam resident who grew up in Maillardville and graduated from Centennial, Seki is familiar with area trails. And at 56, he said he is not planning on leaving SAR anytime soon, and hopes to continue hiking those trails for years to come.
“It is a really great group,” he said. “I have gotten quite a bit out of it and that is probably one of the reasons why I am still here.”