Meet Jason Butler, a volunteer search manager with the West Hants Ground Search and Rescue. He joined the organization following a harrowing night at Cape Split, when one of his friends got lost.
Having moved around the province a lot in his youth, Butler has returned to Mt. Denson to raise a family. He currently works at St. Mary’s University as an instrumentation and controls technician, but spends a lot of his spare time with the search and rescue group training, fundraising and helping others in need.
“I was at Cape Split. She was a friend of mine, a photographer, and she wanted to take some pictures of the sunset there. We got separated part way out on the north shore. I stopped to go use the facilities and she kept walking along and I was just going to catch up to her. Unfortunately, she walked off the trail, got lost, I couldn’t find her. I had to come back out, got out around 11:30, midnight, called the RCMP, and they came out around 1 o’clock, and they called search and rescue, and they were there around 2:30. In the meantime, we had heard a report from the RCMP that she called out on a cellphone and gave a description of where she is. The search team showed up, set up a command centre and I said, ‘she’s right in this area according to the report.’ I got in an argument with the search manager, ended up in the back of the cruiser. So they went out, she wasn’t there. They came back to the cruiser and asked me some questions, sent in another team, and she happened to find the first one on their way back out. She was just off the main trail. In the end I wrote this big long scathing letter to search and rescue about how they did such a poor job. One of my friends said, ‘you’re an idiot; you were the reason they were out there. They’re volunteers. Why not instead of whining about it do something about it?’ So I joined the West Hants (Ground) Search and Rescue.”
“My 20th year will be on the 30th of April. We’ll be having a little get together here for our annual general meeting and I’ll be getting my 20-year pin then. It feels awesome. If you had asked me when I started if I thought I’d be here for 20 years, I’d probably have said no. It is volunteer, so it is based on your time. I did take a couple of years leave — I got married, built a house and had my first child all within two years — so I was a little busy. After things settled down a bit, I came back and have been here since. It’s about giving back to the community, which everyone should do in some way. Some people do Scouts, Brownies, things like that. A lot of people volunteer at the seniors homes. This is a skill set that I can put to good use. I’m an avid fisherman, hunter, trapper, so getting into search and rescue is my way to give back.”
“We’re volunteers; we come from all walks of life, everybody has good intentions. Search and rescue has come a long way in the 20 years I’ve been here. The technology, the support from government and the public and just the general awareness has come a long ways. Back in 1977 when they started, it was just a group of hunters and outdoors people and if somebody was lost in the community they just banded together and went out to look. Now it’s quite structured and we have training standards. It’s come a long way. It can still take an emotional tole on a person. In my current position, I'm not often in the woods any more. As search manager, I take on the role of directing the search with the RCMP incident commander, which is a whole different kind of stress. Six years ago we had a search for a two-and-a-half year old in a snowstorm in Ashdale, time was of the essence. Very stressful. We located him in the end and it was a good ending, but it took me a few days to wind down and relax after that. I’ve taken searchers to counselling meetings with the volunteer fire department and their critical stress team.”
“Fortunately most of our searches are successful, however, sometimes they are deceased and it becomes a recovery and our people can back out. They are volunteers, and some people just don’t want to deal with that. We can’t force it. But the other end of it, which is more prevalent, is the emotional high you get when you make the find. When you get the gratification that you found the person, a job done. Some of the searches that stick with you are the ones where there is no find, period. It remains a mystery. And there’s no closure, both for the family and for the searchers. Those are the ones you really remember and keep turning over in your mind, thinking about what you could have done different. There’s been a few of them. I spent a week in Parrsboro looking for an 89-year-old hunter, still no idea. Spider Lake, I wasn’t there, but my team was, and they spent an enormous amount of energy and still to no avail. But the finds are what really drives you. When you confirm you’ve made the find, for me personally I get butterflies. Nobody want to go back and tell the family you’ve had no success. But when you find someone, that’s when the training kicks in. You get them stabilized, go through our checklist to make sure, medically, they’re sound. Check for hypothermia, make sure they have food, water, shelter, all that stuff. In some cases we set up camp, put up tarps, get a fire going and sit and wait until we can get, perhaps a Cormorant, or something.”