For the past four decades the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team has been heading out into storms to find people lost in the snow. TNSAR formed after the tragic loss of a local teenager, and its primary mission has always been to rescue those in need. However, for the past 25 years, through its Winter Wilderness Survival Program the team has also been teaching the next generation tactics to prevent getting lost and surviving if it does happen.
Every January, North Tahoe and Truckee fourth graders spend a half-day with TNSAR team members having fun while learning tips for winter survival. The day begins with a bit of time indoors, reminding the kids the basics such as how not to get lost, why you should bring a buddy, why you should tell people where you are going, and why it is important to bring extra clothing, food, and water.
Then the children head outdoors into the snow for the fun part as they circle in small groups through three main stations: shelter, signaling, and STOP.
At the shelter station, the focus is on the best ways to protect yourself in the cold and snow. While the kids all want to build a giant igloo, they learn its simpler to grab some branches to sit on to keep your butt warm, then hunker down next to a tree or make a divot in the snow and cover that with a branch. Other ideas include finding a giant boulder to hide next to or using skis to make a frame with branches over the top.
“It doesn’t have to be big; small is beautiful,” said Bernie Mellor, who has been the lead TNSAR team member for the Winter Survival program for more than 20 years. “With more bodies in a small space, it gets toasty.”
The next station is signaling. Here, team members talk to the kids about why you would want to signal, and ask for ideas of what to use. Ideas include stamping out SOS in the snow or using a bright object like a jacket as a beacon that is placed out in the open on top of a hill. The children are told that signaling visually is not the only important thing to do; it’s also a great idea to make some noise. This might be the kids’ favorite part.
“We tell them about some great things we have found when searching for lost people that helped us to find them,” said Mellor.
The last station is about making good decisions. STOP stands for Stop, Think, Observe, Plan. It’s common when you get lost to start freaking out and spin around in circles thinking, “I need to do something now!” The team members advise that the first step is to stop, breathe, look around you, and observe what the situation is. Use your senses: Do you hear something, see something, smell smoke in the air? Perhaps you will learn that you are not that far from a house or a road. Once you know what is going on, it’s time to make a plan for what is the safest thing to do.
Mellor says that while people may join the TNSAR for the thrill of heading out on dangerous searches in the middle of snowstorms, many of them find an equally deep satisfaction from helping fourth graders understand how to treat winter with respect and make good decisions. “The team members who do it, do it every year,” he said. “Most have kids of their own and realize ‘That could be my kid who got in trouble.’ You feel you are giving back to the community. These kids are not strangers; you see them in other places around town. It’s pretty fun.”
While much of the information they learn in the program could be read in a book, when the learning comes in-person directly from the team members, it has so much more impact. These guys and gals have been out on hundreds of searches. They have discovered people safe in little shelters, found people sooner because of ingenious signaling devices, and seen the benefits of good choices, and, unfortunately, the incredible sadness of bad decisions.
This is the chance for the search and rescue members to pass on to the next generation all that information they have accumulated. Hopefully what these local kids learn will keep them from ever needing to be searched for, and perhaps when they grow up some of them will join TNSAR to help others.
While the program is geared toward winter survival, many of the tips kids learn could also be helpful in keeping children from getting lost during the summer when they are out hiking or playing.
The Winter Wilderness Survival Program is a big win-win for the community. The students who participate learn the basics that may save their lives, or the lives of their friends or family members. And the members of the TNSAR get to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. In doing so, they hope to reduce the number of searches they may have to head out on in the future.
Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue offers an informative guide to winter preparedness and survival on its website at tahoenordicsar.com.