SUPERIOR READS

Amazing story of love, rescue in the mountains

By Victor Volkman

Go Find: My Journey to Find the Lost – and Myself
By Susan Purvis
Blackstone (2018) https://susanpurvis.com

On the surface, Go Find is a simple memoir with a simple title: a woman in her 30s makes an impulse decision to get a dog and train him to eventually become a member of the world’s most renowned search-and-rescue dog team. But dig deeper and it’s a complex mixture of love and loss, triumph and grief, success and failure…on multiple levels. U.P.-born author Sue Purvis is our guide on a journey of exotic locales, from Colorado to Nepal. Susan Purvis grew up on the east side of Marquette, Michigan. As a child, Susan explored Lake Superior with her father, Harold (a fisheries biologist) in search of lake trout. Susan’s mother, Dorothy, a homemaker and community organizer, introduced Susan to ballet, ice skating at the Palestra, Girl Scouts and skiing at Marquette Mountain (Cliffs Ridge). As a senior in high school, Susan attended her first medical and writing courses at Northern Michigan University.
Before I go any further, I have to say that I am not a dog person; yet I found myself compelled to keep turning the pages. I could hardly believe that here I am – a 54-year-old grown man – reading a story that is 50% about a black Labrador retriever named Tasha and enjoying the heck out of it, and I mean it’s really about a dog: what the dog sees, smells, vocalizes and so on.
When the story begins, Sue and her husband Doug are a team of struggling field geologists working to uncover new gold deposits in the Dominican Republic. She doggedly plays her role as Doug’s lieutenant, taking jobs where her getting a job is a condition of Doug’s contract. Getting a dog, at first, is just a checklist item on life’s bucket-list: get married, get a house and get a dog. At first, adopting Tasha, at the tender age of 5 weeks old, is all Sue ever wanted. However, shortly after landing in the tiny resort town of Mount Crested Butte, Colorado, in 1995, Sue picks up the scent of a tragedy that happened a few years earlier: an avalanche that enveloped three toddlers just outside their home. By sheer luck, two were rescued and resuscitated, but a third died needlessly from the lack of a qualified avalanche rescue dog.
Sue sees this gap in the world and boldly steps forward to fill it, despite knowing nothing about search-and-rescue or even the basics of obedience training. What she does bring to the table is plenty of hard-won backcountry experience with old school map-and-compass work, as well as her geology degree. Sue quickly encounters an endless maze of qualifications and certifications she must pass to meet the demands of the local group SARDOC (Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado) before she can even participate. Her can-do spirit never flags – well, at least not too much – as she goes on to discover avalanche dog training is really only a small piece of the puzzle. Even if you had the greatest avalanche dog in the world, you’d still miss out on most opportunities for search-and-rescue. To volunteer all year round, in all environments, requires four distinct skills, each with a grueling training and testing regimen: wilderness, avalanche, water and cadaver detection.
Sue’s latent maternal instincts immediately kick in when she bonds with Tasha. Much as we don’t like to think of love as a zero-sum game, it inevitably manifests that way as she pours the love that she doesn’t get from married life into raising her dog. Like an avalanche she can never outrun, her devotion to her new career and partner threatens to suffocate her marriage. Though outwardly supportive, Doug demands obedience like an alpha dog himself, often belittling Sue for spending thousands of hours preparing Tasha and nearly $20,000 on gear, travel and other necessities. The geographical rift between a high-altitude Colorado town and the harsh equatorial climate of the Dominican Republic also mirrors the conflict in Sue’s life as she tries to maintain two careers 2500 miles apart.
After spending a few thousand dollars on EMT training, Sue becomes an assistant at a local high-altitude clinic that ostensibly treats ski and outdoor related injuries, but inevitably serves as an all-purpose, rural urgent care facility. This really piques her interest in helping people, and she’s actually good at it, as well. She absorbs enough information – through study and practice – to become something of an expert in the nascent field of “wilderness medicine.” Partnering with a local doctor eventually leads Sue to begin teaching seminars on wilderness medicine; specifically, high-altitude and mountaineering medicine, to a growing clientele, first locally and then nationally, including Secret Service agents. This involves altitude-induced sicknesses from basic Acute Mountain Sickness to life-threatening conditions such as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Many of the symptoms can easily be written off as “flu-like,” and a misdiagnosis as a lesser illness can mean death in a matter of hours or a couple days.
But…back to the dog story. As you may have surmised, all of this training takes a toll on Tasha, and there’s so much to do that the whole first half of the book is devoted to the three years of training it takes to get Tasha certified to participate in actual emergencies and not just weekends worth of training exercises. Sue struggles mightily with learning to train her dog, and eventually, through several mentors, she acquires the means to be the alpha dog in their relationship and get out of the way so Tasha is not induced to produce false alerts, the bane of any dog rescue team. Sue’s eye is always on the clock, knowing that the severe regimen and the basic lifecycle of dogs will limit Tasha’s working life to perhaps age 10. “Go Find” is the basic command to bring Tasha to begin a search pattern, and so an apt title for the memoir itself.
Go Find is written from Sue’s point-of-view and as much as she can surmise, Tasha’s point of view. Although there are more than a dozen missions included, the text never gets dull or repetitive, and as reader, I was on the edge of my seat wondering whether Sue and Tasha would beat the clock rescuing an avalanche victim or complete a mission dropped on the top of a mountainside by a helicopter. They win some and they lose some, but the infectious enthusiasm of Tasha is like the relentless tug of a leash of which you won’t be able to let go!

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