Somewhere between hunting for gold in Latin America as a geologist and getting married to a new husband, thirty-three-year-old Susan Purvis loses her way.
Susan comes to believe that a puppy and working on ski patrol at the last great ski town in Colorado will improve her life. When she learns about avalanches that bury people without warning, she challenges herself: “What if I teach a dog to save lives?” This quest propels her to train the best possible search dog, vowing to never leave anyone behind.
With no clue how to care for a houseplant, let alone a dog, she chooses a five-week-old Labrador retriever, Tasha. With the face of a baby bear and the temperament of an NFL linebacker, Tasha constantly tests Susan’s determination to transform her into a rescue dog. Susan and Tasha jockey for alpha position as they pursue certification in avalanche, water, and wilderness recovery. Susan eventually learns to truly communicate with Tasha by seeing the world through her dog’s nose.
As the first female team in a male-dominated search-and-rescue community, they face resistance at every turn. They won’t get paid even a bag of kibble for their efforts, yet they launch dozens of missions to rescue the missing or recover the remains of victims of nature and crime.
Training with Tasha in the field to find, recover, and rescue the lost became Susan’s passion. But it was also her circumstanceshe was in many ways as lost as anyone she ever pulled out of an avalanche or found huddled in the woods. “Lostness” doesn’t only apply to losing the trail. People can get lost in a relationship, a business, or a life. Susan was convinced that only happened to other people, until Tasha and a life in the mountains taught her otherwise.
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About the Author
Susan Purvis, owner of Crested Butte Outdoors International, has taught wilderness medicine to everyone from the Secret Service to Sherpa guides in Nepal. Purvis and her search-and-rescue dog, Tasha, whom she trained to save lives on the most avalanche-prone slopes in Colorado, launched dozens of rescue missions and received Congressional Recognition for their role in avalanche search and rescue. Purvis’ work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, the BBC, and on Discovery. She lives in Whitefish, Montana. Go Find is her first book.
Read an Excerpt
Summer 2005 Ouray, Colorado
If the helicopter shifts, we're dead. Dead, like the guy we're looking for.
So much can go wrong up here. Peering out the open door, I look down at the fast-moving, unforgiving terrain. Far above the tree line where the air is thin, volcanic rock breaks into huge spires and fins. Freeze-thaw cycles crumble the cliffs into strange shapes like gargoyles. Every crevice fills with snow.
Tasha, my black Labrador Retriever and avalanche dog partner, is wedged between the pilot and me. Her bum presses against the pilot's right hip while she digs her furry elbows into my thighs and settles her barrel chest onto my lap. Her webbed feet, splayed wide from years of digging in avalanche debris, dangle off my leg and out the helicopter's open doorway. In our haste to 'hot' load the helicopter moments ago, I nixed Tasha's restraining device. As the helicopter blades shave the air closer to the towering 13,492-foot peak, I vise-grip her neck with my arm, pulling her closer, concerned she'll try to jump or scramble onto the pilot's lap. Wiggling my toes inside my ski boots helps to keep them from falling asleep. That's all I dare move. If Tasha or I make a sudden movement, the two-seat crop duster helicopter, used to spray pesticides on cornfields, might fall out of the sky. We're about to land by putting one skid onto a couloir, a steep narrow gully, hemmed-in by sheer cliff walls on the upper flanks of Whitehouse Mountain in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.
As we near our forbidding landing site, I try to avoid looking down at the four-thousand-foot drop where dawn just turned to daylight, towering evergreen trees now shrink to matchsticks, and warm air turns to cold. My knuckles turn blue as I squeeze the grab handle above the door frame.
Thirty-nine days earlier, a single-engine plane crashed on Whitehouse Mountain killing all four passengers on board: Richard Ford, the man we are looking for, his four-year-old son, and his parents. Days of bad weather coupled by avalanche hazard and extreme terrain had thwarted any rescue effort. Eventually, the local search and rescue team, Ouray Mountain Rescue members were transported to the wreckage, one by one. Over several weeks of searching, they found twisted metal, clothing, children's books, and three partially buried bodies strewn over a half-mile long path. The team located all but Richard. Deeming the recovery mission too dangerous, the local Sheriff had suspended the search. Until now.
All hope is bet on my sixty-pound retriever and five-foot-three-me.
We're the last-ditch effort and we've got one hour to find him.
After a decade as my search and rescue partner, Tasha has a few grey hairs on her chin, but still looks and acts like a pup. In human years, she's seventy and I'm forty-three. Her career is almost over, and then mine will be, too.
Tasha and I are one of a few elite high-altitude volunteer search and rescue dog teams in the United States. We live in Crested Butte, Colorado. For our work, we don't even get paid a bag of kibble yet we're up here risking our lives.
Inside the helicopter, Tasha's silky ears flap against her blocky head as air blasts through my side of the helicopter. Her chest swells and retracts, panting breathless, as the air thins. white. Her breath stinks. I can't tell if her excessive panting is from nerves or the food she gobbled down last night when she nosed open my suitcase and devoured eight cups of dry kibble, plastic bag and all. Her bloated belly feels like a stuffed sausage.
I want to wring her neck.
How could she do that to me? Ten years of training, sacrifices, and proving our worth to a community of doubters, many hoping I would fail. This mission is the pinnacle of our career and because of Tasha's gluttony, we might fail ... if we don't die first.
The pilot reduces power and the helicopter edges closer to the mountain. Boulders as big as cars litter our search area with fresh gray rubble, evidence of violent daily rock fall. Because of the danger, we only have one hour to get in, find Richard's body, and get out: the morning sun shining on the avalanche path will cause snow to melt, releasing rocks that could pierce our flesh and crush our bones.
"Sue, see that speck down there?" The pilot's voice crackles in my headphones. "That's Bill." He points to a narrow, snowy couloir in front of us. "He's chopping out a landing zone." The pilot stares straight ahead at the colossal mountain. He concentrates on placing his skid onto the thin strip no wider or taller than me. I squint out the bubble-shaped window, but can't see Bill.
A sharp wobble of the helicopter jolts me with adrenaline. My body jerks. I cling to Tasha. I don't dare let go. To calm my nerves, her nerves too, I hum a soothing melody into her ear, one she's been hearing for a decade. "Good girl, Black Dog. Doo tee dooo ... I luv you." I shut my eyes, praying the blades don't hit the slope. I put my boot against the bubble window and press an imaginary brake pedal to stop our forward momentum and brace for impact. The chopper edges toward the sheer wall. Somewhere on this peak, a family's despair is buried beneath tons of avalanche debris. Will my family soon join in their despair?
Suddenly, I spot Bill running toward a rock wall, protecting Susan Purvis himself from the rotors and shielding his face from the growing blizzard of blowing snow. He's engulfed in the white tornado whirling beneath the chopper blades. I lose sight of him. The pilot's skid thunks onto the landing strip. Tasha jerks up and digs her nails into my legs. It's painful, but I don't move a muscle.
My eyes fixate on the pilot for direction. He focuses on the blade whapping an arm's length away from the snow. "Time to go," he yells.
Yanking off my helmet with one hand, I pin Tasha into my lap with the other. The deafening roar of the engine makes verbal commands to Tasha impossible. I rely on years of eye contact and hand signals to show her when to exit. Bill crawls on hands and knees to meet us. He waits in a crouch as directed by the pilot until the bird steadies.
"You're going to have to jump," the pilot shouts at me.
"Jump?" I worry about Tasha's distended abdomen. She could rupture her gut if she lands her belly. Then I remember the raspy plea of Ed LaCuran, the uncle of the missing man. "I'm not leaving Colorado until all my family members are accounted for. I've been scouring these mountains for over thirty days." Ed's desperation convinced me I had to go. We're his last hope. Ten years ago, when I blindly launched into this volunteer search dog career, I promised I would never leave anyone behind. I've kept my word ... so far.
The helicopter shudders. I clutch the handle and, for an instant, I question what I am doing here. My husband's pissed. He told me not to come, tried to order me not to get on the chopper. Yet here I am, in the path of an avalanche, risking Tasha's life and my own. Somehow I find it easier to jump out of a helicopter than to talk to my husband about our relationship. Is my ego driving this? My promise to the family? Or is it that I have something to prove?
My eyes lock onto the pilot's. He nods, now. Before I ease Tasha into Bill's extended arms, I look to her to tell me something. Anything. I know I'll never bond with another being like I with her. Everything we've struggled for hinges on this moment. Her kind brown eyes, full of confidence and foggy cataracts, stare into mine. Her calmness quells my shaking body.
"Tasha," I whisper into her ear, "Time to go."
After cueing her with a wrist flick, she lunges out and spread-eagles onto Bill's face and chest, knocking him backwards. The two regain their feet and run together toward the rock for protection. Slipping off my seat, I sit on the floor. One at a time, my boots find a purchase on the icy skid. Slinging my pack over my shoulder, I let go of the safety handle and jump.
Ten years earlier, Fall 1995 Denver, Colorado
It all began in Denver.
Knock, Knock, Knock.
Alone on the doorstep of a stranger's home in the Denver suburbs, I pound the wooden door with my knuckles.
The dry, Rocky Mountain air is a world away from the Dominican Republic where I just spent the past month in heat, humidity and congestion. This calm of the suburbs seems unfamiliar: there are none of the honking taxis, men carrying machine guns on their shoulders, or street dogs pillaging through garbage I'd become accustomed to.
Barking dogs raise a chorus from the back of the house. I take out a crumpled piece of paper and double-check the ad from the Denver Post:
5 ½ week old pure bred black Labrador retrievers.
Earlier that morning my husband Doug had thought I was insane when I told him I needed a puppy, today. I had kissed him on his lips under the warmth of our down comforter and begged, "It's time."
For god's sake, we're leaving for hunting camp in a few hours." he said while pressing his muscular body against mine. "And where are you going to find a puppy today in this town?" We divided our time between working in the sweltering jungle and respites at our condo in Gunnison, Colorado, one of the coldest places in America. The little cow town condo was two thousand miles and three time zones away from the D.R. and wasn't so much our home as a storage box for our raft, skis, and outdoors gear, a place to land when we returned from our exhausting work stints. Gunnison had appeal because of the airport and its close proximity to the last great Colorado ski town.
On this particular Sunday, Wyman had the only litter in the state ready for adoption. I learned that when I jumped out of bed, threw on my green sweat pants and Doug's oversized hoody and biked to the nearest newsstand. The thermometer read sixteen degrees.
I live by instinct and my instincts told me I had to have a pup today. Otherwise life might suck me in another direction, back to the Dominican Republic for another two years, or to some field camp in Mexico. I had to act now. For years, I'd dreamed of having a soft, fuzzy puppy to call my own, but Doug and I found ourselves several years into a million-dollar gold exploration program. We had established an office in Santo Domingo, struggled to communicate in Spanish, secured an unlimited expense account, hired a few Dominican geologists, maids, and rented a fieldhouse in a very remote part of the country.
Because of our constant travel to Latin America for work we could never have a puppy. And since we agreed to not have kids, this seemed like the next logical step. Today I was ready to settle down a little at least. Today I wanted a dog to fill an open hole in my heart. Susan Purvis
I push my nose against the door's window and peer through the glass. Squinting, I hope to get a glimpse of the surprise waiting inside before I meet the dog breeder. Before I can size up the place, a large man with a big belly and a bad complexion stares back at me. Startled, I step away from the door.
"Hi, my name is Sue," I yell through the glass. "I'm the gal who called from Gunnison." I smile, hoping he might smile back.
The door opens and he gestures with his index finger. "Come on in."
He coughs, takes a long drag of his cigarette, and closes the door behind me. Cautious, I look back as the door shuts.
"I hope it's not too late to see your puppies?" I say, reaching my hand out to greet him in an effort to cover my disheveled appearance with friendliness. In my haste this morning I hadn't bothered to shower or put on a clean shirt.
"My name is Wyman." My palm disappears in his big, rough hand and he offers a softer look as we shake hands. Bloodshot eyes scan my body. Looking into the street, he notices my rusty, old pickup truck and scowls.
A few steps into the dim living room, I smell the sweet, distinct aroma of new puppies. Across the frayed carpet, a blockheaded, stubby-nosed, short-legged black Labrador bitch darts towards me. In the Dominican Republic, dogs can rip fingers off. I jam my hands in my blue jeans pockets.
"Sammy's the mom. She won't hurt you. She loves everybody."
"Ah, she's beautiful. How old?"
"She's five. Had four great litters."
I can't imagine so many litters in so few years. Sammy is obviously a money-making breeding machine.
"Her puppies are calm, well-mannered." He exhales a puff of smoke through his nostrils. "Just the nicest dogs. Sammy's an English Lab — from the show dog line. She's the perfect house dog."
"Great." I look around. I recall Doug's parting words as I loaded the truck for the six-hour drive to Denver. "No field trail Labs that need to run twenty miles a day. And I don't want one that bounces off the walls like those Border Collies. I just want a nice normal family Lab. And no males. They pee all over everything."
Following Wyman through the house, I ask, "How many grown dogs do you have anyway?"
"Four more dogs penned up in the garage."
I hide my disapproval at the cruelty of caging dogs inside and get to the point. Can I see the puppies now?"
"As the first buyer, you get first choice. They're forty days old, almost six weeks." He holds the door.
"Isn't that a little early to be taking away a pup from her mother? I thought pups didn't leave their mom until eight weeks?"
"Nah, if you like one, take it. If you don't like it, you can return it."
His used car salesman pitch grates on me. But from the corral, the nine black romping puppies have nabbed my attention.
"Oh, my gosh, they're so adorable. How will I ever choose one?"
"Just pick one, ma'am. They're all the same."
I select the four females from the enclosure in the kitchen and we bring them outside onto the grass. Lying on my back, I let the puppies — each the size of a well-fed hamster on steroids — climb on me. One latches onto my nose with her razor-sharp teeth. I tug her from my face, losing a few drops of blood, and set her aside. Next, I rule out the alpha and the runt. I stand up to see if the two remaining candidates will run after me. They do. I roll each one over and onto their backs. The first pup submits without a fight. The second one squirms, whines, and punches the air with all four legs, trying to escape. When I wave a small twig in her face, she chases it.
"Ah, a fighter and a retriever. I like you."
I pick her up and look into her baby-gorilla-like face. "Hi there. You're cute." My mouth nuzzles into her soft ear. Her warmth and baby smell oozes out, nearly dropping me to my knees.
I tie a purple ribbon around my pup's neck to mark her then stand back to watch as they all attack their mother for feeding. The fatter male pups wallop the others with their feet to keep hold of the teats. But like a linebacker, the purple-ribbon pup shoves a sibling out of the way.
I nod at her, satisfied.
Within thirty minutes of handing the puppy breeder a check, I drive off with my black furball. I stop at PetSmart where a veterinarian pronounces her healthy.
"How much should I feed her?" I'm thinking about careful measurements.
"Give her all the food she wants." He hands her back to me. "Don't worry about overfeeding. She'll know when to stop eating."
"Okay." Was this good advice? I don't know? Like a naïve parent with a newborn, I have no Labrador operating manual, no freshly painted room, no toys stacked neatly in a cedar chest. Marching out of the store, I'm determined to do better than I had in college with the house plants I'd killed with neglect. Conscious of my new responsibility, I tote a five-pound bag of puppy chow under one arm and a delicate furry body in the other.
I place her in the co-pilot seat in my truck. Lifting her paws as if the seat were hot, she looks up and locks her eyes on mine. Dropping her nose, she sniffs then circles a few times before plopping down into a ball and closing her eyes. I cushion her with two rolled jackets — one near her head and the other by her tail — and clip the seatbelt around her.
Through my rearview mirror, I watch Denver's concrete jungle and toxic chocolate haze recede. My hand on her small body, I promise her she will never live a life in the city — and certainly not be held prisoner in a cage. "Purple," I stroke her head. "You're exactly what I need right now."
Twelve hours later, a thud wakes me from a deep sleep in the middle of the night, in an spring up like a Jack-in-the-Box. Squinting in the darkness, I sort out my bearings. Doug and I are in a remote cabin at the base of Mount Evans, with our best friends, Amy and Big, and their toddler Junior, to bow hunt for elk. Normally we'd camp in tents by Elk Creek, but with our crippling exhaustion after weeks in the Dominican heat and Amy's pregnancy, we decided to rent the one-hundred-year-old cabin.
Patting my palms beneath the bed covers, I feel for the puppy. But my hands encounter only sheets.
Excerpted from "Go Find"
Copyright © 2018 Susan Purvis.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Lost, 1,
Chapter 1: Last Ditch Effort, 7,
Chapter 2: Purple, 12,
Chapter 3: La Republica Dominicana, 31,
Chapter 4: Crested Butte Ski Patrol School, 41,
Chapter 5: Tasha, 48,
Chapter 6: Crested Butte Search and Rescue, 59,
Chapter 7: The Student, 70,
Chapter 8: Ski Patrol 101, 78,
Chapter 9: Snow Burial, 89,
Chapter 10: Derailment, 103,
Chapter 11: Snow Burial, 116,
Chapter 12: Ready And Awake, 126,
Chapter 13: Wilderness and Rescue Medicine, 140,
Chapter 14: The Real Deal, 154,
Chapter 15: Searching For The Lost, 166,
Chapter 16: Tests, tests, and more tests, 175,
Chapter 17: Worst Avalanche Disaster In A Decade, 193,
Chapter 18: Death In The Field, 204,
Chapter 19: All Certified And Nowhere To Go, 209,
Chapter 20: A Dog's Nose, 218,
Chapter 21: Reeling In Scent, 228,
Chapter 22: Cadaver Dog Boot Camp, 239,
Chapter 23: Finding Gold, 252,
Chapter 24: Practice makes perfect, 263,
Chapter 25: Second Time Up the Mountain, 273,
Chapter 26: Finding My Voice, 281,
Chapter 27: Barking Back, 290,
Chapter 28: Go Find, 304,
Chapter 29: Water Mission, 311,
Chapter 30: A Promise, 323,
Chapter 31: My Everest, 332,
Chapter 32: Buried alive, 348,
Author's Note, 391,