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North Shore Rescue smashes annual call record

From mountains to floods, 2021 was a 'whirlwind,' team leader Mike Danks says

North Shore Rescue was called upon 226 times in 2021, clobbering the previous annual record of 151 set just last year.

The all-volunteer team of professionals has set records in five of the last seven years, but this is the largest single-year increase by a wide margin.

“It's been a whirlwind,” said team leader Mike Danks. “With COVID, there is a huge amount of people getting out into the backcountry – lots of people doing it safely, but there's always going to be mishaps. And that's why we have a team.”

Call volumes that high would once have overwhelmed the volunteers, but in recent years, they have shifted to using smaller ground teams and training up new search managers and specialized rescue technicians to help share the workload.

“We've created this capacity and we've seen new leaders emerge,” Danks said, adding morale has never been higher. “I think we're good.”

Another major difference maker has been Talon Helicopters’ new Dauphin helicopter, which went into service at the end of 2020. Unlike the familiar yellow rescue helicopters, the Dauphin is equipped with a hoist, making it easier to insert rescuers and airlift patients in difficult, treed terrain. And the pilots and searchers may fly using night vision capabilities, which has cut down on the number of overnights in the backcountry. In 2021, they logged 154 hours using night vision goggles.

“[It] has been an absolute game changer,” Danks said.

The Dauphin also made them popular with other volunteer search and rescue teams, with 47 mutual aid calls from as far away as North Vancouver Island and Kelowna.

Danks said he’d never once consider turning down a request to help another team. When the town of Merritt and the Fraser Valley were flooded in November, the helicopter team safely evacuated dozens of stranded seniors, families and pets.

“We were constantly pushing and saying, ‘Hey, we're available. We can go. Please, put us in.’ And when we finally got to go out there and help, it was a proud moment for all of us and for Talon as well,” he said. “It is an experience that I will never forget.”

The team added seven new recruits in 2021 – nine if you include Neiko and Dreki, two dogs that were accredited for search and rescue in July. The team’s three dogs spent a combined 101 hours in the field in 2021.

And North Shore Rescue has also never been so well stacked with medical professionals, which means rescue subjects are getting the best possible care in the field, Danks said.

In 2021, there were three searches that ended in fatalities: a snowshoer who was missing overnight off the House Sound Crest Trail in January, a hiker who fell when he got separated from a friend in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park in May, and a man who suffered a medical emergency just steps from the Grouse Mountain parking lot during the June heat dome.

Although Danks said he’s proud of how 2021 turned out for his members, the year did end with a sad note. Karl Winter, one of three founding members of North Shore Rescue, died on Dec. 31 at the age of 82.

Winter served North Shore Rescue for 57 years. When he was no longer going out into the bush for lost and injured hikers, he remained active for the team on construction and maintenance projects, administrative work, public events, fundraising and mentoring new members, Danks said.

“Karl was just a legendary man. He was a mountain of a man,” he said. “He wouldn't look for any credit. He was incredibly strong. He was patient with everyone.”

In 2022, the team is hoping to start on a rebuild of their Capilano Gate search and rescue base, but Danks said his biggest priority for the year will be lobbying the province to allow them to use the Dauphin’s hoist capabilities after dark. They have all the federal approvals needed but the province has been stubborn in signing off on it, Danks said.

“We have this amazing tool but … we're not allowed to use it. Like, there's a restriction on that aircraft that doesn't need to be there,” he said. “We know that will make a huge difference in not only our own rescuer safety, but the safety of the public that we serve. It just greatly reduces the amount of people that we need to put in the field at night in technical terrain.”

From the general public in 2022, all Danks asks is their continued support and willingness to share trail safety education that helps ensure everyone makes it in and out of the mountains without needing North Shore Rescue’s help.

“We're so lucky. We have such amazing support from our community,” he said.