The Shadow Below: A K9 Team Tackles a Lake Search

K9 dog team

“Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow”

                  — T.S. Eliot, “Life Is Very Long”

. . . or, in the case of a 13-year-old Las Vegas, N.M., boy, it is very short. Last summer, the young teen and several friends had walked from his semi-rural home, through the balmy darkness to nearby Storrie Lake State Park. The park’s lake — just over a thousand acres and shallow — nevertheless has long been a popular summer attraction for locals.

In low-income, mostly desert-y New Mexico, almost any accumulation of water larger than a mud puddle is likely to draw overflow crowds on summer weekends. Storrie Lake is no exception, although its shallow depth (often less than 15 feet) doesn’t allow much in the way of motorized boating.

The boys swam 40 yards from shore through beds of weeds and underwater brush. When the teenager didn’t surface, his panicked friends frantically called for help.

In New Mexico, water searches quickly hit the radar screen of the State Police (NMSP) Dive Team. The divers, numbering fewer than 20 in all, are experienced underwater searchers. The team — stationed across the state — uses dive boats, underwater sonar, high-tech gear. Every possible advantage can be important in waters where you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

New Mexico’s rivers and lakes tend to be murky, sediment-filled, often polluted. During a recent river search near Albuquerque, our K9 handlers counted something like 20 shopping carts, multiple truck tire carcasses, assorted mattresses and a couple of microwave ovens — representing the amazing array of detritus the city’s contributes each year to the state’s major waterway, the Rio Grande.

New Mexico offers great green chile. It does not offer even a faint facsimile of Oahu’s Hanauma Bay. For state police divers underwater, most searches are tactile, not visual — tethered by lines, groping for anomalies, they walk 360-degree blind circles on a lake bottom’s treacherous footing. Cadaver search by Braille. It’s not a job for most.

Two divers were in the water, others waiting on their distant boat, when our K9 team arrived for our first-ever water search last summer. After a briefing by the dive team commander, we launched our own craft, a 14-foot jon boat.

Like the dive team, we, too, carry some fairly sophisticated electronics. Top-end GPS transceivers, a depth finder accurate to six inches and ham radios that pick up localized National Weather Service reports. I realize now that I had been developing — despite training that discouraged this — a false sense of security that my electronic tools — if I could remember to keep the batteries charged — could get me out of trouble just about anywhere. I carried this emotional cushion everywhere, I suppose, even when I should have been working instead on better personal skills and clearer vision.

Although none of our K9 handlers realized it at the time, we were soon to learn that water searches are inherently shadowy events. If you don’t find the subject(s), their loved ones and survivors can’t get closure. If you do find subjects, they’re dead. Unlike a lightly dressed man who survived for a week last winter in New Mexico’s snow-covered Gila Mountains, nobody makes it for a week underwater. On this day, the Shadow would fall in a most unusual way.

We returned from our first two hours of searching with our boat. Back on the shore, two-dozen cars — police cruisers, state park pickups and lots of local vehicles were parked haphazardly along the shore.

A small man with short dark hair walked up.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m his step-dad.”

“Hi,” I replied.

“How do you search with the dogs?” he wanted to know. Nearly two-dozen relatives and bystanders were watching us intently from 40 yards away.

I explained what I’d been taught — that water carries human scent much like the wind, and that our dogs were trained to tell us, even in the boat, exactly when they caught it. I pulled my GPS unit out, showed him the lake onscreen and began a basic explanation of how we would triangulate a location based on the dogs’ indications in the boat. He nodded enthusiastically.

“I know about GPS,” he said. “I was a federal prisoner until three weeks ago, and I’ve worn an ankle bracelet for the last year.” Even in his grief, he seemed proud that he understood these tools.

His experience with high-tech gear would take a real turn for the worse the next morning when the dive team found his stepson using underwater sonar. The body was pulled from the shallow, murky water where one of our dogs had shown a lot of interest.

Months later, I still think about the boy, his emotion and the response. What was he thinking that night? Was he showing off for the girls who stood behind on the shore? Did he get cramps? Was he a kid who had been bullied at school, looking to end his life? Was he tangled in the underwater scrub oak?

Our jon boat’s depth finder can’t measure these places where the Shadow fell that night. Maybe he was just unlucky. Maybe the poet was wrong and life isn’t very long at all.


Fred in the Forest

In the parallel universe of mountain search and rescue (SAR), some stuff grosses everyone out. An upcoming MG story, for example, describes a state police dive team that often has to search for drowning victims via tactile means, SAR Braille if you will. In fact, almost anyone who heads out on a SAR mission can end up as a PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) victim him or herself. But the SAR community is just beginning to recognize the need for counseling by responders to wilderness incidents involving fatalities.

Outside magazine writer Hampton Sides, in a 2010 NPR interview, commented that “It’s only recently become apparent that PTSD is rampant among the community of first responders. I think the last community that has come to recognize this has been these mountain communities. These people essentially get to do what they love to do, and yet they come across this trauma. They see these horrible things — often people they know.”

Some extremes go WAY over my personal redline. At a K9 Human Remains Detection (HRD) training a couple of years ago, the state medical investigator’s office simulated a light plane crash for us on the top of a wooded ridge. The fine spray of body parts, we learned, often rises increasingly higher into the trees as the slope drops downhill. Holy shit!!!

We hear similar gory stories of fallen climbers, of rockslide victims, of mountain adventurers who return home in body bags that weigh less that 20-pounds. But, “It is,” as some mountain town deep thinker once said, “what it is.”

SAR volunteers often refer to death with euphemisms — often irreverent, smart-ass ones. First responders of all kinds probably do this — a kind of preemptive defense mechanism against the emotional trauma of dealing with death. CTD, to some grizzled SAR cognoscenti, is recognized as “Circling the Drain.” ART means “Arriving at Room Temperature.”

You’ll never overhear these on a team radio during a search. In New Mexico, every team leaving Incident Base knows the “death code” — a term to be used in radio coms to describe a search subject who is deceased when found. Often it’s something like “Red Bandana” or “Black Bear” or “Cowboy Boot.” If no phrase is assigned, searchers are taught to use a standard military code term, “Alpha Delta.”

The deception, presumably initiated to disguise the message from media, the subject’s family members or others who might be monitoring radio traffic, seems pretty thin. Still, it may avert unwelcome inquiries at a time that is, at best, fraught with big questions.

When a dead person is found in the wilderness, the mission changes immediately from one of rescue to one of recovery. When the death code call comes in from the field, the remains become property of the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI). The rescuer’s role changes to one of security guard, because every wilderness cadaver find is designated as a crime scene.

The urgencies of time, first aid and evacuation give way to sometimes hours of waiting while “preserving” the scene (mostly meaning keeping everyone away) until a medical investigator arrives. At the time of the “find,” little additional information is usually available, even if Incident Commanders wanted to talk to observers. Which they most assuredly do not, unless you’re a searcher with new information.

On searches, the only term I ever use for human remains is “Fred.” When I send my border collie out with a command to “Suche (German for “search”) Fred,” he knows we’re not looking for a grateful subject who’s gonna’ shower him with hugs and praise. Some of my SAR team’s K9 handlers use commands like “Ciao,” “Adios,” “Search Sam” or similar. It doesn’t matter what term is used — “Find us some disarticulated body parts, please,” would work, as long as the handler and K9 both know what it means. With observers often present, the euphemisms probably work better than saying, “Find the croaker!”

The code words hopefully shield non-searchers from traumatic and disagreeable facts around wilderness fatalities. The dark humor of euphemisms used in private probably serves to insulate SAR responders from their more intimate experiences with those same facts. Maybe a little mock bravado expressed through the jokes helps buffer searchers’ emotional distance from the nightmarish possibilities that might be as close as the next bend of the trail.

In sporadic bouts of what I would like to think is insouciant irreverence, I joke about it. I threatened to name our search team’s 14-foot jon boat the USS Fredette. I entered Mountain Gazette’s bumpersticker contest last year with this: “My search dog can find your honor student when he’s Fred in the Forest.” The editor probably didn’t think it was very funny. Come to think of it, Freddy, neither do I.


  • Bought a Yugo
  • Decay Buffet
  • Just Add Maggots (JAM)
  • Horizontal Hilton
  • Kicked the Oxygen Habit
  • Korked It
  • Left the Building
  • Living Impaired
  • Maggot Munchkin Land
  • Marble Ranch
  • Moved Into Upper Management
  • Needin’ a Nap
  • People Landfill
  • Reformatted by God (RBG)
  • Roadkill
  • Sleepin’ Single
  • Takin’ a Dirt Nap
  • Total Relaxation
  • Was Beamed Up

Self-Rescue: Riding Bulls at the County Fair

Last night, I got a phone call from Cutler (brother-in-arms and degenerate ski-towner for more than 30 years). He was in the stands at the Hailey (Id.) Days of the Old West Rodeo, where the bull riding was starting. This year, his granddaughter is the Junior Rodeo Queen.

He, perfectly aware of the ironic déjà vu, called because, in 1975, I was a rodeo contestant and he was in the stands then, too.

I appreciated him remembering, I’m grateful that some mountain town things never seem to change. Here’s the real story. I realize that this blog series, Point Last Seen, is about search-and-rescue, but maybe this fits as a story of self-rescue, in a manner of speaking.

By all accounts, the Plains Indian of North America was probably the best guerilla soldier in the history of our continent — lean, mean, highly motivated, a master of the hit-and-run. The eventual loss of his land and culture, through innumerable battles with later arrivals, may be due in part to a single small-but-perverse quirk of strategy — one that caused him to buck the odds again and again. It has to do with “counting coup.”

At its finest expression, coup counting means touching an enemy or hitting him with a hand-held “coup stick” while he is alive and, presumably, trying to kill you. When done correctly, counting coup is the highest form of a proud people’s military art. It is not as effective as, say, napalm.

If the Indian wars were to start again, though, the Indians would inevitably ride up to a tank and slap it with a coup stick. Something like this actually happened, reportedly, at the American Indian Movement (AIM) Wounded Knee standoff in 1973. The target was an armored personnel carrier, the Indian’s pony reportedly a battered Volkswagen sedan. But with no homeland wars in the immediate offing, today’s Indians still participate as best they can.

Sometimes they count coup on each other in reservation bars, with knives. Sometimes, by mistake or design, they count coup on themselves with Chevy pickup trucks. Other times, the coup stick is an empty wine bottle, the victim a deserted back-street alley wall. But these are perversions of what is basically a courageous and honorable act.

For would-be Indian warriors (most guys between 18-35), one of the best ways to count coup is to enter a rodeo. There, you can rent a faux buffalo for eight seconds, and he is a guaranteed worthy adversary. You have no choice as to make, model or color, but you can be sure he is a sport model, that he’ll weigh nearly a ton, and that he’ll have amazing acceleration.

The rules are simple — stay on the bull for eight seconds and you win. Maybe. If you’re bucked off or even if you do win, bos indicus is entitled to the option of re-counting coup on you. Hopefully, you’ll have drawn a bull that is not a coup fanatic, or at least a bull without two-foot-long horns. I lost on both counts at Hailey, Idaho, when the nice lady (rodeo secretaries are always nice ladies; it’s in the job description) reached into her hat and matched my name with Two Bits. Two Bits is a 1,700-pound black “Brangus” (Brahma-Angus cross) with horns like something you’d see on a West Texas truck stop wall. Unridden at the time, he’d scored a lot of coup points against bull riders.

On rodeo day, the bulls lumber noisily into the bucking chutes, tossing their massive heads, offering vicious, gratuitous broadsides to the gates and metal chutes. Ill-tempered, rear ends plastered with green slime, they seem, to my spinning imagination, hostile to everything in sight. Outside the First Security Bank chute, somebody is yelling my name. The stage is set. Inside, I’ve got an appointment with this seemingly evil black hulk. The hump between his broad shoulders looks, for all the world to me, like an oversized chip. I cannot quite bring myself to melt back into the shadows.

As I gingerly lower myself down onto The Hulk in the chute, the stock contractor (his owner and manager) leans over my shoulder and says, “Now, don’t freeze up on me out there. Hit the ground running.” He doesn’t mention my chances of counting coup.

“Yessir,” I reply.

Three seconds out of the chute, Two Bits blows me off his back, one huge rear hoof coming down like a jackhammer on my left knee, which, two weeks later, still looks like a double cantaloupe. Instantly, from long habit, he turns to look for those lifesavers-of-the-cowboy, the rodeo clowns. They are standing by the fence about 50 feet away, their hands in their pockets. Somewhere, in the back of his homicidal black bull heart, Two Bits senses that the day is entirely his if he can just mop up the survivors. The lone survivor is sprawled in the center of the arena, face down.

Then the crowd is on its feet with an ugly roar, bringing the first ironic flash of cognition — this is going to be the Little Big Horn in reverse — General George Armstrong Baldridge, lying defiantly in the dirt with a gimpy knee and a brace of smoking bull bells, hears the approaching thunder of hooves that can only mean the final charge — led by none other than the notorious Two Bits, brandishing a two-foot-long coup stick over each ear. Fifteen feet away, coming fast, bent on bovine manslaughter, his eyes are glittering, black.

That’s when time stopped. Rock climbers know that time can stop, so do downhill ski racers. Time probably stops for anyone who has gone too far and suddenly sees that they are going to lose, and lose big. Anyway, the time stopped and the noise stopped and there was suddenly nothing — nothing at all in the whole world — except for a lone swimmer somewhere off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, looking at the razor-sharp coup sticks in the mouth of the Great Black Shark who is going to bite him in half. And, seeing, oddly and dispassionately, that the shark is beautiful.

Then the Brahma/shark is doing his best Ray Lewis blitz impersonation and the pilgrim is Thurman Thomas in chaps, carrying the honor of the Buffalo Bills now that all the buffalo are gone, except for this black one with the coup sticks.

For an instant, a surge of overwhelming elation. The nuts and bolts of counting coup — pure and simple exhilaration, a real metaphysical kick in the ass. But Lewis has split the block and is closing with murderous intent, still wearing those damn coup sticks on his helmet. Get your shit together, T.T.

Little hip fake to the left, sprint for a quick-pitch right away from the flow, which suddenly consists of one grease-painted clown who’s finally decided to join the game. It is beautifully executed, a play gaining the final 20 yards before tripping on the Buffalo Bill chaps and sliding under the fence on my nose. This to the delight of my three partisan fans, including my wife, who missed most of the action by hiding her face in her hands; Brian, his mind addled by drugs and seven months of excess on the pro ski tour; and Cutler, who was far too drunk to tear any goal posts down.

I truly believe the rest of those 3,000 mountain-town philistines were for the Lewis bull, which was probably a pretty solid bet at the time. But then nobody ever counted coup by making solid bets.

Cleared for Take-Off

I’m 15 for a moment
Caught in between 10 and 20
And I’m just dreaming

Counting the ways to where you are…

21 May 2010
3:00 PM PST, 1500 HRS, 2300 ZULU
San Diego Lindbergh Airport, SAN
Flight, Terminal Nine (9)

I am sitting in a black leather chair, laptop warming my thighs, the white power cord an umbilicus to the wall. I will board in a short time, but am taking advantage of the electricity now to charge global positioning units, the laptop, one Blackberry, one iPhone and six rechargeable batteries. I hope to have enough time to cycle through another six before I have to unplug.

Music catches my ear over tinny speakers buried in acoustic ceiling tiles. I’m 15 for a moment, caught in between 10 and 20…

I know this song, but distracted by the electronics and Transportation Security Agency announcements, I can’t place it.

And I’m just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are…

It takes a moment longer to realize that this song is one I’ve sung often, late in the night, driving to yet one more mission, or on the way home, speakers blaring, windows open, trying to keep awake.

How fitting, then, this song, these lyrics, and I’m just dreaming, counting the ways to where you are… should play now, as I wait for a plane to take me north, to deep forests and thick nettles to search for a pilot gone three years.

A much-loved man with thin hair and thick logbooks, with years of experience and a brand-new plane, refuels and, like Amelia, is never seen again.

This was supposed to be my weekend home to relax, play a fierce game of Scrabble, maybe bake a pie. I’ve been on the road every moment the children have been gone, and sadly, a few minutes that they’ve been home, too.

The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life
… there’s still time for you|
Time to buy, Time to lose yourself
Within a morning star

No one has opposed these missions. The children are used to this life, were born into it. They love the gadgets and widgets, the carabiners and glove wraps, the radios and dog toys. They understand why we, a motley crew in orange, do this, but it can be a little harder to justify it to myself when I see their waving hands and smiling faces as I leave our home, leave them.

“This we do, so that others may live,” is the motto of search and rescue.

This pilot has been gone three full cycles of the calendar, 12 equinoxes, and there is no hope that he is waiting around for rescue.

But this finding him is incredibly important in so many aspects. His family will know. His friends can begin their own processes. There are matters of being able to say goodbye, but also matters of being able to lawfully close accounts, insurance, other legal intricacies.

It is also important for the searchers. We, too, are able to know. Searchers puzzle and work a missing-persons case like a dog worrying about a bone, but without conclusion, without knowing, there is no resolution. The worrying never ends. We second-guess ourselves, wonder where and why and how and when we failed. Did someone die because we did not find him or her in time? What did we miss? How do I fix it so it does not happen again? Search is a great mystery, but rescue, or as in this case, recovery, is the great answer.

There are other tangibles. If we find him, we keep someone else, perhaps a dog walker, or a mushroom picker, or a young couple out for a forest picnic, from finding what is never a pleasant scene. We are able to better predict future incidents, based on what we learn from these missions. Perhaps that knowledge will someday be used to expedite the search, and find a survivor in time.

The sun is getting high
We’re moving on… 

My plane has just made its final approach, I hear over monitors. It’s time to close the laptop, and break out the maps, interview reports, a steno pad, a pencil, a highlighter. Time to unplug the phone and GPS, store the batteries into their plastic bag. I’ll be flying the next few hours, so this will give me some uninterrupted quiet time to think about this missing man, try to picture where he might be, how to cover a lot of ground in a little time. Maybe even close my eyes and get some rest. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.

And I’m just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are…

As I am putting my phone away, a text message chimes from my son. “Good luck, Mama! Find your man! I love you!”

I am cleared for take-off.

Logging Hours in Shallow Water

It is October, and we have just recovered the body of a young man, drowned in now-placid water. The falls are not terribly deep, but today, they prove deep enough.

“Hey,” the tan and balding lieutenant says to me, “thanks for your help today.”

“No worries,” I respond. “Any time. I’m not a diver, but I’d be glad to help whenever you’ll let me.”

He nods. “We always need shore help. Talk to your lieutenant.”

Training and dive log: 11 hours


It is December, only two months later, and I am back out on the water. This time, a large lake in the rural community just west of my home. The team gathers there every December, diving the cold muddy waters. They dive off the dock, into the murk, and pull all the detritus that has fallen since the last December: ranger gear, radios, boat batteries, fishing poles, cell phones, tackle boxes and frequently, six packs of beer, still secured in their plastic rings.

I sit on a wooden bench that is softened by a small thin pad that doubles as a flotation device. The boat rocks gently, and I snap photographs of the divers. The sun reflects from the water, warming my face, but it is not enough. The breeze is brisk, biting, and I’m glad for the heavy Kevlar vest that I wear. The ceramic and steel plate nestles against my heart, trapping body heat.

The divers slowly make their way back to shore, and the small motor on board sputters to life, so as to follow. It is time for the real reason, real purpose of the day: the team holiday party and gift exchange. Families have arrived on shore, waiting, gifts in their arms, warm dishes for the potluck. I have no one, save a dog, waiting at home.

I made a cheesecake, traditional New York style. It is heavy, silky, beautiful and topped with dark, rich, juicy Morello cherries. I live in a small one-bedroom granny flat with a temperamental stove, given to fits of hot and cold. I alternately worry that the cake will collapse, undercooked, or shrink, overcooked. Or, worse, both … It turns out perfect and luscious.

Carefully, I place the cheesecake on the buffet table, among the gingerbread cookies, the fruit ambrosia and other offerings. I make my way to an open seat at one of the tables; I am still so new that I am learning names, attaching to the right faces, right rank.

No sooner do I sit down than do two deputies, special enforcement detail, our SWAT team, pick up the cheesecake and two forks. They walk away with the entire cake, and devour it, just the two of them. To add insult to injury, the heavier of the two, flat-top and mustache, wipes his finger across the now empty cake form, licking it clean.

The lake is now as clean as the cake form. Trash has been appropriately disposed of. Batteries and waterlogged radios lay on the deck, draining, while lake staff inventory them, checking serial numbers against their clipboard, so the appropriate insurance forms may be submitted. The oxygen tanks are back in stow on the dive van, waiting refill, and neoprene suits hang over truck beds and tailgates, dripping dry. People laugh, eat, back slap, enjoy. I am part of this team, and it feels good.

Training and dive log: 8 hours


My quadriceps and hamstrings scream, cramping. My breath comes in quiet rags, panting hard, as I stretch my arms and hands high above my head.

“You can do this,” the handsome blond dive instructor calls to me, encouraging. “You can do this, come on, only a bit more.”

I roll my eyes at him, but keep treading. This is the most difficult part of the endurance test, and my hands, arms must not touch the water. Lungs and legs only, and long, interminable, hour-long minutes. I keep treading.

The final decision had been made a few weeks before: for liability reasons, all members of the dive team must be appropriately certified by a nationally recognized and accredited dive school. After proficiency certification in open water, then dive rescue, evidence recovery, underwater investigation, more. Further, all members must be sworn; I’ve already completed the academy, been issued badge and weapon. All that remains is this unending tread.

“Time!” the dive instructor calls, clicking the stopwatch, arms raised in the air. Victory! I swim to the edge of the pool, throw the weight belt up to him, and pull myself onto the concrete, exhausted.


Training and dive log: 4 hours


The Pacific surges and sways, and even through the thickness of my hood, I can hear the low swish of kelp. We are approximately 18 feet below the surface; the dive master is off to my right, pointing. Fish dart here and there, but here a small orange Garibaldi makes his stand, protecting his territory. I can hear him, barking, a popping sound, as he scolds us. The dive instructor extends his right leg, fin out, at the Garibaldi, and he clamps on the tip, shaking like a dog. I laugh, and accidentally suck in water. Choking, sputtering, I clear my regulator, and the dive master laughs at me.

We practice clearing regulators, clearing masks. He motions for me to drop my mouthpiece, and we practice rescue breathing, sharing the one source of oxygen. He nods; I’ve passed the skills. Time to move on, and he motions with a crook of his finger.

I learn to navigate underwater, using a compass. I learn how to take my vest on and off. I learn not to panic, when my oxygen tank is secretly shut off.

And, I learn to keep an eye out for falling rocks. This has never been mentioned anywhere in my texts, or the PADI videos. No one, not even the dive instructor, tells me that rocks may fall from the sea above.

That is a lesson I learn, instead, from a small, silky sea lion. He darts to and fro, slipping in and out of the kelp, out of my line of sight, disappearing into the dark jade of the Pacific. Quick and fast, he speeds past, scooping the rock from the sandy floor, racing back to the ocean’s surface, and drops his rock again. A game, and an amusing one, as long as one doesn’t get hit on the head.

Training and dive log: 11 hours


We are in the pool, the whole team. The instructor has spent two days in a classroom with us, slide projector showing proper procedure, underwater diagramming, ghostly white bodies floating in the deep. My book is filled with scribbled notes, highlighter ink, pages dog-eared to important sections. There are other specialists from other agencies that have joined us. None of us have a big enough team, enough people to support the course on its own, so together we come to learn, train, dive.

Into the water; I must perform all of the same skills I completed in the ocean: in and out of the buoyancy vest, shared regulators, navigation, emergency clearing of masks and breathing apparati. Then it is the obstacle course.

The pool is filled with suspended tires, tennis court nets, a weighted body. Debris intended to trap, snare, kill a recovery diver — meant to kill me, if I am not careful.

“You will do the entire course, timed,” the instructor bellows. “If you pass, you will then repeat the course. You will be dark. And it will be timed.”

The first time, we will be allowed to see what we are doing. The second time, we must do it blind, face masks blocked, to simulate many of the conditions we will work in.

I am paired with the blond man, the dive master. I am young, and have no expendable income; dive lessons are expensive. But I have horses, and he wanted to learn, so we have traded dive lessons, hour for hour, with horse lessons. Win-win, and we develop an easy friendship. I am glad to be diving with him today.

We complete the assigned tasks, quickly, quietly, competently. When the course is completed for the second time, we break the surface and offers a “high five.”

“You’re a recovery diver,” he says.

Training and dive log: 13 hours


We are required to make monthly team trainings and dives, but that is not enough to remain proficient. Personal dives, if accompanied by a team member, are counted toward training, experience, hours.

It is easier and more efficient to swim, underwater, than to fight the tide at the surface. We are at 60 feet; the light filters from the surface, but the darkness looms closer. Small white objects float, iridescent, glowing dully, and move with the surge. I look questioningly to the dive master; he pulls his slate, and with a pencil, writes “squid, spawn.”

We are at the lip of the undersea canyon, and it is dark, so very dark. I shake my head at the dive master; our team has a 100-foot hard deck, and I’m not experienced enough to go beyond that.

Suddenly, my mask skews, and my hood contracts. Turning around, I see the dive master grinning, and with one hand, I feel for, and find, a large starfish. The dive master has put it on my head, and it has locked on, tight, pulling neoprene and hair.

I carefully work the starfish free, and right my mask and hood. The dive master is doing something, I cannot see what, as he lays on the floor, swaying with the unseen waves. He turns his face to me, and offers a hand — lying, flat, round, is a small piece of sandstone, and he has engraved “Diver Kim” into its surface.

“Diver Kim.”

Training and dive log: 7 hours


The deputy stands on the edge of the rock outcropping, peering into the pond. “I’da know,” he says, shrugging, “s’posed to be in there.”

The man that’s supposed to be in there, is not supposed to be in there. A migrant worker, here illegally, is from a nearby camp, high in the hills. This pond serves as a place to get water, bathe, socialize. Beer cans litter the shore, some aged and faded, some new, and probably the cause for our call today.

A single pair of denim jeans lay on the shore, dark, with a hand-tooled leather belt. The man’s name has been stamped into the belt. It serves as his only identification.

“You goin’ in ta get him”” the deputy asks.

I grin, as I pull my uniform shirt taut against my belly. I am five months pregnant, and do not fit in my wetsuit. “Not today,” I say. “Bit of a buoyancy problem.”

“Anyone else comin’?” he asks, looking around.

“On their way,” I say. The dive van is slow and clunky to begin with. Add in the rugged road leading into this location, and it will be longer still. No matter, as other dive team members begin to trickle in.

One man ambles up the path, heading to me, to the deputy, offering hellos. He’s been with the team for a very long time, incredibly experienced, unflappable, quiet. He has earned the nickname “Body Magnet,” as he seems to have the most finds. He is halfway into his wetsuit, a Farmer John only. No need for more than that. A quick assessment, briefing, and he is snugging his face mask into place.

Wading into the water, he settles onto the battered Boogie board, snorkel tucked into the band of his mask. Gliding softly across the surface, he makes his rounds, slow and methodical. It is not long before he stops, paddles back, body tense, and his hand dips into the water.

He is found.

All the steps are taken, process and procedure followed, and soon, the man’s body lies on the shore. Flat on his back, clad in leopard-print briefs and gray athletic socks, his lips are blue, and rigor has begun in his arms. He has thick, black, luxuriant hair, and a full mustache. I take his picture, and I wonder about him. All that I know is engraved on the back of his belt. Who is, or rather, who was he? Did he have a family? How many times did he cross the border, seeking work, better pay, a better life? All he wanted was a bit of relaxation, a cerveza with friends, and a dip in the pond. All for naught.

The dive van has not arrived, and therefore, there is nothing to place his body in. I reach into my backpack, and find my emergency shelter. Heavy orange plastic, and I slice the sides open, flat, like a sheet, and we slide him, carefully inside. He is not overweight or large, but the dead always seem to weigh more.

The van arrives, and soon after so does the medical examiner. He will be taken away, recorded, a statistic in a file somewhere, but our work here is done.

Training and dive log: 5 hours


The weather is cool, and the skies dark. Grey. Threatening rain.

I am off the shores of La Jolla, dipping in and out of the cove. To my south, sea lions frolic in the Children’s Pool. To my north, Great Whites pup in the artificially warmed waters off San Onofre’s nuclear plant. I have no agenda, no schedule today. Just be in the water.

I am approximately 15 feet from the surface when I notice it. I’ve never seen it before. Rain. Rain as it falls on the ocean’s surface, plinking, causing small circles to appear. I lay on my back, suspended in the surf, watching the rain spot the glass above me.

It is beautiful.

Training and dive log: 4 hours


The family stands on the shore. This lake is large, enormous, and serves as an Olympic training site. The young couple, however, only came for a bit of relaxation. Time alone, together, so romantic …

Until the oar slipped its lock, and floated away.

The young man, handsome, strong, jumped into the water after it. His impact caused the boat to slide away, and the oar even further. He could not swim, and his girlfriend, his love, watched in horror as he bobbed under, and again, and then one last final time.

The dogs are scenting the water, trying to triangulate for the divers. The media has started to arrive, setting up their cameras on the shore, on the docks. I try to avoid them, and am directed to keep the family safe from the news crew.

I sit with the young man’s mother. She has flown here, and waits in suspended animation.

“Is he cold?” she asks, hands clasped in her lap.

“No, ma’am, he’s not cold,” I say.

“It’s just so dark down there,” she murmurs.

“We’re doing everything we can to find him,” I assure her. And we are, and we do, for the next three days. We suspended operations after a diver, tired, at depth, embolizes. His partner saves him, brings him to the surface. They are transported to the emergency room, placed in a chamber.

I am part of the crew that attends to him, to them both, and my focus is on them.

But the young man’s mother still waits, silent, watching, as the helicopter flies away with my team, and patrol cars stream from the parking lot.

“Will you come back?” she asks.

“I’m sorry,” I apologize. We are out of resources. The risk has become greater than the reward. I explain that we will continue to search the shores, that he should eventually come to the surface on his own.

“Oh,” her voice is small. “When he comes up on his own …” and she trails off.

“Yes?” I ask.

“When he comes up on his own,” she tries again, “you can do CPR, then, right?”

This poor woman. This poor boy. My heart rends for her, and her arms lift to me. I stand on the shore, and embrace her.

Training and dive log: 12 hours, and the night is not over yet.


The Sheriff stands at the podium, while the emcee reads the proclamation.

“Without the assistance…” and our names are read. The diver who embolized will survive, although due to increasing pressure from his wife, he will resign from the team. It is too dangerous, and she is afraid. The diver who pulled him from the depths, the same diver who pulled the migrant from the pond, stands on the stage, as a medal is placed on his chest. I stand with the rest of my crew, as our names are called. We are awarded our own recognition, letters of commendation, a shake with the Sheriff, photographs taken.


The helicopter, an MD-Bell 500, painted deep blue, black, and white, hovers over the reeds. The rotor wash beats heavy and hard, bending the tall grasses, and sending hard ripples across the lake.

The boy’s body has indeed, finally, come to the surface. It has taken longer than anyone would have imagined. The heavy deputy steps from the bird, foot on the skid; he is the same deputy who walked away with a cheesecake some years before, and now pulls the body to shore.

A mother can now say good-bye.

Training and dive log: 2 hours


A mother says hello, smiles, and waves at her baby, blinking widely at the heavily chlorinated pool water.

My own children, now almost eleven, almost nine, splash and play. The girl likes to pretend she’s a mermaid, a dolphin. Right now, she’s lunging at her brother, jaws wide open, pretending to be a Great White.

Two years ago, they were dragged to swim lessons. The boy was hesitant, afraid, but his Papa insisted. The girl could not bear it, and cried much of the lessons, until the frustrated coaches sent her to sit on the sidelines. The Papa complained about the cost and wasted time; I held my breath. I’d already voiced my objections to the whole thing, to begin with, but some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

Last year, we made our way to the local pool and water park. Joining as annual members, we could come, escape the heat, play, explore. Slowly, Monday by Monday, the summer slipped away, tans darkened, and the children became more confident.

We joined again this year. Two Mondays ago, the Girl placed her face in the water. “I’m weady,” she proclaimed, and slipped under the surface.

And she did what none have done on any of our missions: she came to the surface. Triumphant, grinning, spluttering, “I did it! I did it!”

The yellow-covered dive books, mission logs have accumulated over the years. Entries. Dives. Notes. Pictures. Bodies. Missions. In the ocean, in any of the multiple lakes, ponds, creeks, falls.

Last November, facing the increasing pressures of growing children, shrinking time, a need to earn enough to support us all, and so much more, I sat, tears in my eyes, and typed my letter of resignation. I filed away the yellow-covered logs and placed the pictures into my desk. The letters of commendation, medal of meritorious service hang on the wall, in the dark of my rarely used home office. Two weeks ago, my badge was returned from the jeweler, newly emblazed with silver, engraved “honorably retired.”

And like so many days in the past, I am back in the pool, treading water, kicking, breathing, diving to the bottom.

The Girl waves from the shallow end, jumping, and holding air in over-inflated cheeks. The Boy swims to me. Body long, lean, brown from the sun, cheeks red from the excitement, swims to me.

“Mama, Mama!” he calls. “Wait for me!”

And I tread, waiting.

These are not hours I can log; there is no mission book, no training that must be learned. Instead, as I tread in these shallow waters, gazing at my two children as they splash and play, I realize, this may be my most important assignment ever.