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.