GO FIND!

A story of rescuing and being rescued

 

Tasha is a black lab who was trained by Marquette native Susan Purvis to find people trapped beneath avalanche snow and ice in Colorado. (Photos courtesy of Susan Purvis)

 

By Megan Emily
How does a girl from a tiny town in the U.P. wind up jumping out of a helicopter onto a 13,000-foot mountain to find a plane crash victim’s body with the help of her search and rescue dog? It sounds impossible, but that’s exactly the situation in which readers find Susan Purvis in the first pages of her newly released memoir, Go Find.
When she graduated from Marquette Senior High School in 1980, Purvis never dreamed her career would take her to Crested Butte, “the last great ski town in Colorado,” or that she would become one of the top search and rescue (SAR) dog handlers in the nation. She was just a small-town girl looking for an adventurous way to earn a living, and she first found it in the jungles of the Dominican Republic.
There, Purvis worked as a gold exploration geologist alongside her husband. The couple split their time between work in the DR and a home in the U.S. (She likes to joke that “I was commuting 2,000 miles to work!”) Eventually, they bought a home in Crested Butte, Colorado, which is famous for its ski resorts. Purvis had often skied at Marquette Mountain and soon landed a second job with the Crested Butte Ski Patrol.

“I like to say I had one foot in the mud and one foot on the snow,” she said.
That snow had the potential to be dangerous—even deadly. The mountainous slopes that make Crested Butte great ski country are also prone to avalanches. Not long after Purvis joined the ski patrol, she heard a story of an avalanche that buried three young children across near the resort where she worked. Two of the children survived after volunteers dug them out of the snow. The third child was discovered under eight feet of snow nearly an hour and a half after the search began and had to be dug out using a backhoe. He didn’t survive.
Purvis was told that a SAR dog was brought to the scene to look for the third child. But the dog didn’t find him. He was located by human rescuers using long aluminum probe poles, which are stuck into the snow to feel for people buried underneath. “I was amazed. I just thought, ‘What do you mean the dog didn’t find him? Isn’t that the dog’s only job?’” Purvis said.
Then, she had the idea that would change her life: what if she trained an avalanche SAR dog to save lives?
Purvis found the perfect avalanche dog in the form of an adorable black lab puppy named Tasha. From the time she brought five-week-old Tasha home, their training as a team began. What started with teaching the pup to follow friends’ and family members’ scents during hikes in the woods turned into burying volunteers in snow caves and letting Tasha find their hiding spots. During the training process, Tasha wasn’t the only one learning. An experienced dog handler once asked Purvis, “Why do you let that dog yank you around like that? You’re not in control of your dog. She’s in control of you.”
“I had to learn how to be the alpha,” Purvis said.
She chronicles this experience in the middle chapters of her book, describing the ups and downs of their training together. (One of the most memorable mishaps is that, shortly after Purvis tries to convince her ski patrol coworkers of the value of an avalanche dog, Tasha takes off for a swim in a sewage pond.) It would take long years of both SAR and obedience training to create the unbreakable bond of trust and respect that defined their partnership.
Another problem they faced was the lack of respect for and awareness of SAR dogs’ ability to locate victims more efficiently than human rescuers. To raise awareness about Tasha’s skills, Purvis traveled to police departments, ski patrol units and SAR teams to teach about the value of an avalanche dog. Her visits even inspired one sheriff’s department to invest in its own police dog. She also began working at a local ski clinic, learning how to treat traumatic injuries and altitude-related conditions that she was likely to see when she and Tasha made a “live find.”
Purvis and Tasha trained and got certified in additional SAR areas, eventually becoming a cadaver dog team and searching for homicide and drowning victims. To better help Tasha in the field, Purvis studied the way scent moves, which is far more complex than one might think. “It’s not just a steady trail. Scent flows around topographical features. It rises and sinks based on the time of day, and it pools in low places like water,” she explained.
Her dedication paid off: she and Tasha became one of the top SAR dog teams in the country and the first female team in a male-dominated industry. She and Tasha found victim after victim buried in avalanches, lost in the woods or submerged in lakes and rivers.
Purvis has since taken her SAR knowledge global: she is now the owner of Crested Butte Outdoors, which offers wilderness medicine and avalanche training globally. She travels to teach courses firsthand, and her favorite place to teach is Nepal.
“I started a school there for wilderness guides. The Sherpas had no medical training and were treated fourth best. The client, white guide and support teams were all treated better than them, even though they’re the ones who are familiar with the terrain,” she said. Part of her job is to offer critical medical training and part is to empower Sherpa guides and advocate for better working conditions.

Susan Purvis and her search-and-rescue dog Tasha prepare to look for an avalanche victim on La Plata Peak in Colorado in 2003.

As word about Tasha and Purvis’ success spread in the SAR world, newspapers and magazines started covering their finds. “And they never got the story quite right,” Purvis said. “I started thinking, ‘Why am I letting them tell this story? I can tell it better than that; I’ve got to write a book!’”
Writing was a daunting task. “Someone told me early on that I couldn’t possibly write a book, and I believed it,” she said. “I always wanted to write since the third grade, but in my 20s and 30s, I didn’t have a voice that was strong enough to be heard. It was through my dog work that I found my voice to write the book.”
As it turns out, the process of writing a book is similar to training a SAR dog. Both turned out to be far more work than they appeared at the outset.
“The story was supposed to just be about me and Tasha, but there was no undercurrent, no tension,” Purvis explained. Two years into the writing process, she wrote not about training her dog but about the deterioration of her marriage. She realized that, even though her job was to find people who were physically lost, she’d gotten lost in another sense. “I was the avalanche expert, but I got caught in my own metaphorical avalanche. My whole life was devastated because of it,” she said.
That was the turning point of her writing process: “I wasn’t going to let that piece go, because to me it was the most meaningful part of the book, and it was at the end. So then I had to take that chunk [of the story] and start weaving it in [throughout the book].”
This took longer than Purvis expected. “It took Tasha and me three years to get certified [for avalanche search and rescue], and it took 10 years to write the book,” she said. She credits her writing group in Montana for helping her build the story one sentence at a time. “We’re really just therapists for each other,” she laughed.
After networking at a writing event in Banff, Canada, Purvis eventually connected with a literary agent and landed a publishing deal with Blackstone Publishing, one of the largest audio book publishers in the U.S. Purvis compared getting her book published to getting Tasha’s avalanche certification: “After that happens, nobody knows I’m certified, nobody knows I’ve got a book. You’ve got to sell your dog service, got to sell your writing service.”
Purvis is now on tour promoting her book. While her tour contains many stops in Canada, the western U.S. and particularly Montana where she now resides, it brought her back to her hometown of Marquette last November. She participated in an author meet-and-greet at Snowbound Books and spoke to NMU students.
One of her most meaningful speaking engagements took place at Marquette Senior High School on Nov. 30. During the visit, which was organized by MSHS teacher Fred Cole, she addressed more than 150 students in two presentations, sharing stories about Tasha, SAR and what it means to be lost. She also encouraged students to write and travel. “I was just a small town girl from Marquette, Michigan, but now, I’ve done some pretty big things—and you can, too,” she told them.
From paving a way for herself on the male-dominated ski patrol to becoming one of the top SAR dog teams in the nation to writing a New York Times bestseller that earned a banner outside the Javits Center in Manhattan, Purvis has had a whirlwind career. But her most remarkable moments—and the ones that keep readers turning the pages of her book—are the ones when she and Tasha persevered under near-impossible conditions to bring closure to dozens of families whose loved ones have gone missing in the wilderness.
As for the daunting mission mentioned in the first chapter—and that fateful leap from the side of a helicopter at 13,000 feet—you’ll have to read to the end of the book to learn what happened to Purvis and Tasha on the mountain that day.
Go Find is available in hard copy and audio (recorded in Purvis’ own voice). To learn more, visit susanpurvis.com or follow her on Facebook: facebook.com/susanpurvisauthor.

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