By Karen Kefauver
March 21, 2014
Link to Sentinel Article
I have been lost in the woods on my mountain bike many times during my 20 years of cycling in Santa Cruz County. It can happen on a group ride when I miss a turn, or by myself when I get confused in a maze of twisty trails. At first, I feel invigorated and on high alert, like I have stumbled into a grand adventure. Then my legs grow weary, my stomach starts to growl and it seems a lot less fun. So far, I’ve always found my way out of the tunnel of trees and landed in a patch of sunshine to safely follow the road home. No harm done and not much time wasted. I can’t imagine the terror of spending the night in the woods, alone, cold and wondering if I am on my final ride.
That’s what happened to one unlucky Redwood City resident about two years ago. He set out on a recreational ride with friends one Saturday afternoon at the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park and, many hours later, ended up in a bad situation.
One of the rider’s friends, Rob Morse of Aptos, recalls, “I had a slow leak in my tire, stopped to fix it and told my friend to go ahead and that I would catch up with him.”
When Morse, a highly experienced mountain biker, didn’t reconnect with his friend on the trail, he assumed his pal had gone home. But that was not the case.
Alarmed, he took action.
“I drove back to the park, with my bike and my lights, to look for him. I realized it wasn’t a good idea to ride into the woods by myself, with no cell phone coverage, and that I wouldn’t be able to do much alone. I had already called 911. Then I called search and rescue. They mobilized and looked for him throughout the night.”
The next morning, Morse’s friend called from the woods to report he was OK. He had stumbled into a spot with cell phone reception and was soon located by rescuers. What happened to him could happen to any cyclist or hiker: He had taken a wrong turn, backtracked, crossed a creek, got disoriented and ended up spending one of the coldest nights of the year in the woods.
“He thought he was going to die,” said Morse.
The ordeal made Morse determined to revisit an idea he had pitched to the sheriff’s department 15 years ago which had never come to fruition: Why not create a group of mountain bikers who can become part of the search and rescue team?
Morse figured that a group of mountain bikers could join the existing search and rescue team and that members of the new unit could use their extensive knowledge of the trail systems.
“It would be the fastest and easiest way to know where people could get lost and crash and go over the side,” said Morse, a Division Manager of PGE Central Coast, who started mountain biking in the Bay Area in the ’70s and currently rides at least twice a week.
In December 2012, with the full backing of Sheriff Phil Wowak, the effort to form such a team — entirely made of volunteers — was underway.
More than a year later, after intensive training, including CPR and first aid, background checks and getting official uniforms, a group of 10 mountain bikers has officially become part of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team (SAR).
The local SAR website state that it’s “a group of dedicated individuals that encourages you to safely enjoy the beautiful county of Santa Cruz, California. Comprised of volunteers from the community as well as personnel from the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, the team is on-call around the clock every day of the year.”
“The mountain bike team is one of our specialty teams,” explained Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue volunteer coordinator Chris Melville, noting that other established SAR divisions include K-9 rescue, an equine team, a motorcycle team, a technical ropes team, air search and others. Involved with SAR for 16 years, Melville said, “We all work together. We call ourselves ‘ground pounders’ because we hit the ground first to look for people.”
“The formation of the new mountain bike team is the result of Sheriff Wowak’s support. It’s been fantastic department-wide management,” he added.
Kathleen Bortolussi, the lone woman on the 10-person mountain bike team, said, “It’s a nice way to give back to the community in a way I can. I am passionate about mountain biking. If that can be used for rescuing people, that’s another positive avenue for the support.”
No stranger to volunteering, Bortolussi, 49, an IT application manager, is also a ride leader for the Santa Cruz Composite Junior Cycling Team.
“It’s a positive thing to have a woman as a role model,” said the Aptos resident, who has decades of cycling experience under her belt, including road, cyclocross and mountain bike racing. “I’d like more women not to be afraid to participate. It is time and effort when you are called out on search, and it’s on your own time, usually at night. It’s an opportunity for mountain bikers to be part of the solution.”
The new team does not exist just to rescue other mountain bikers. Searches have included missions to find missing persons, like Alzheimer’s patients who wander away from home.
Aptos resident Brad Williamson, 56, was one of the first to join the mountain bike SAR team. An active bike racer with a multi-sport background, Williamson summed it up: “It’s part of a sense of duty. Everybody involved is high energy. It’s volunteer work so everyone is stoked. Search and Rescue is a bunch of really good people. The SAR motto is ‘So That Others May Live.’ We are all in the same boat.”
For more information, visit: www.sczsar.com.
Karen Kefauver (www.karenkefauver.com) is a freelance writer who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz.