Wike Graham is an efficient-looking young man, 23 years old, compact and athletic with a no-nonsense aura and a firm handshake…just the kind of man you’d want searching for you if you happened to be lost in the wilderness.
And that’s exactly what he is. Graham is the coordinator for the DuPont Rescue Experience, as well as a captain in the Charlotte Fire Department and the president of the North Carolina Search and Rescue Advisory Council.
The Rescue Experience, now in its sixth year, is a wilderness rescue simulation designed to give search and rescue teams practice in using the National Incident Management System. It will be held November 4, 5 and 6 and will involve rescue teams from all over North Carolina, as well as other states. Joining Graham as instructors this year are Greg Shuping (Haywood County Emergency Management), Jimmy Brissie (Henderson County Rescue Squad Chief), Jeremy Edmonds (Asheville Fire Department), and Shawn Haynes (Asheville Fire Department). These are serious, highly trained professionals who will be teaching up to about 60 participants in the latest search and rescue techniques.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to get together,” Graham says, “and train for disasters like hurricanes, floods, terrorist attacks, or whatever else that might happen.”
It’s the kind of training that pays very real dividends in the real world. The rescue teams must always be ready to take to the field. During the 2006 event, for example, Graham and his fellow teachers were called upon to hunt for a couple that had been reported missing. They, along with members of the Brevard Rescue Squad, the Transylvania Police Department, and the FBI, spent an entire weekend searching for the couple.
That effort unfortunately ended in the discovery of two abduction/murder victims, but more often the searchers track down the victims in the nick of time. Graham recalls one episode involving a man who had been picking blueberries and went missing for three days in increasingly inhospitable weather.
“When we finally found him, he had sat down to die. If not for the searchers, he definitely would have died. It makes you feel great when that happens.”
The role of the searchers has become increasingly sophisticated, Graham explains. Before the teams take to the woods to find a missing person, he and his fellow rescue leaders do what he describes as “profiling.” By that, he means that they interview people who know the missing person, assess his or her relative fitness, medical condition, psychological state, and any other pertinent information.
Then they analyze the information to scientifically determine just how far the person is likely to travel on foot. The analysis helps them narrow the search to the most likely areas and helps them speed up the process.
On occasion, the missing person may not wish to be found. Some may even be confused and suffering from dementia. Some may not want to be found. One of Graham’s search subjects was a drug-overdosed runaway who was also the subject of a police warrant. Despite his best efforts to stay missing, the search party still found him.
“If a person really wants to disappear,” Graham says, “and there’s nothing wrong with him, we’re not going to look, but most people we deal with really need help. It’s important; you have to make sure that you have trained searchers. Otherwise, who are you going to call?
Who indeed? This is not work for the average couch potato. The terrain in both the Rescue Experience and the actual searches can be difficult, demanding a high degree of physical fitness and specialized knowledge, as well as state-of-the-art equipment. This is where Graham and his fellow instructors come in. “I always check their packs,” Graham says. “You’d be surprised how unprepared some people are.
If the Rescue Experience sounds like serious business and a lot of work…it is.
But it’s also a chance to try out a lot of fun equipment like all-terrain vehicles, mountain bikes, gators, mules, and other utility type vehicles in an atmosphere of friendly competition. Training will cover topics like rope rescue, land navigation, canine search, and other techniques of wilderness rescue. There will be special training sessions for anyone bringing a vehicle and the website for the event (www.dupontrescue.com) provides an equipment list. Event coordinators suggest that participants study the list carefully before registering.
Once the action begins, teams of rescue workers will be assigned to areas where the event managers have stashed “victims.” When the teams find the victims, they will be given a card to take back to the event headquarters as an acknowledgement of their success.
In addition to the hands-on training, participants can turn their experience into continuing education credits issued by Blue Ridge Community College. In previous years, participants under the age of 16 were allowed to join the Experience. This year, however, the cutoff age is 16 and high school students wishing to participate must turn in a competed high school release along with their registration form.
For a complete immersion experience, participants can reserve some of the limited number of primitive campsites available at the base camp (at the Guion Farm in the DuPont Forest). Requests for these campsites should be made with registration. Overnight stays, however, are not required and all meals are provided as part of the registration fee.
Expect vigorous activity, extreme camaraderie, potentially harsh weather…and a lot of enjoyment. In the words of one past participant, “I almost froze to death…but I had a blast.