As many of you are aware of from school e-mails and news reports, one of our students was lost overnight during the weekend. Due to great effort and teamwork by Conserve and Sodexo staff members along with seventeen different cooperating search-and-rescue organizations from Wisconsin and Michigan, our student was found as the daylight was beginning to wane on Sunday. We are extremely grateful that she was found unharmed and in good spirts.
Following her rescue by Forest Service personnel in the Ottawa National Forest a few miles north of campus, India returned to Conserve School late last night after having been observed for some time at our local hospital. Despite being outside for almost 24 hours in cold, wet weather, she is in great shape, was not injured, and has suffered no ill effects at all. She reported that she was able to maintain a positive attitude throughout her ordeal, spending the night under a thick blanket of evergreen boughs in order to insulate herself from the weather. She also had taken a water bottle on her hike so she was not seriously dehydrated, and she was wearing a warm hat, gloves, winter jacket, and heavy boots despite the fact that it was sunny and mild when she set out on what she thought would be a short hike. Her Forest Service rescuers were astounded by her composed demeanor and good condition when they discovered her standing by a lakeshore, and they reported that she calmly thanked them for finding her.
Our other students were of course very worried about India during her absence, and several asked us what they could do to help while the search-and-rescue operation was going on. Students assisted in a variety of ways. They offered information about India’s favorite hiking spots and described her clothing in detail. They explained their own whereabouts during the preceding 24 hours to help distinguish their tracks from India’s tracks. They also remained calm and cooperative while rescue personnel asked them to stay indoors to help keep extraneous scents to a minimum for the search dogs. Several students got busy baking treats for staff and emergency personnel who were expending a lot of energy in the search, and others made a big thank you sign that hung in the Gathering Space entryway where emergency personnel were constantly coming and going.
I can’t thank all of our staff members and the search-and-rescue team members enough for their dedication and skill during the search process. Director of Outdoor Programs Cathy Palmer did an outstanding job directing the initial on-campus search process and then coordinating the campus and Ottawa Forest Sylvania Wilderness searches with all of the co-operating agencies and organizations. Many of our Conserve School and Sodexo staff members know Conserve’s 1200 acres down to every little footpath, hillside, and bog and are also very familiar with the Sylvania Wilderness north of here. Their intimate knowledge of the landscape and their excellent outdoor skills were extremely helpful to the emergency personnel that streamed in from surrounding communities. Sodexo personnel, led by Head of Campus Services Mike Saad and Food Service Manager Jenny Riihimaki, were a great help during the search as well, with the kitchen staff turning out an amazing amount of bacon, eggs, and pancakes in the early hours and sandwiches and pizza as the day went on. I can’t even imagine how much coffee must have been brewed and consumed over the course of the rescue operation; I just know Jenny seemed to be refilling industrial-size coffee urns non-stop.
Assisting agencies included the Land O’ Lakes Fire Department, the Phelps Fire Department, the Plum Lake Fire Department, the Eagle River Fire Department, the Three Lakes Fire Department, the Presque Isle Fire Department, the Boulder Junction Fire Department, the Watersmeet Fire Department, the St. Germain Fire Department, the Conover Fire Department, Vilas County Sheriff’s Department, the U.S. Forest Service (Ottawa National Forest), the Michigan Department of Corrections, Gogebic County Rescue, Gogebic County Sheriff’s Department, Headwaters Search and Rescue, and Eagle River Canine Units. We send a big thank you out to all of these organizations and are so grateful for the assistance of the many individuals (about one hundred in all) who worked tirelessly for hours until India was found.
We adjusted the morning schedule today to allow everyone to get some much-needed rest. We’re meeting with students at 10:30 to give them an opportunity to ask questions and express their thoughts. Lunch and classes will then continue as normally scheduled. Today’s lessons — which had been planned prior to this weekend’s search-and-rescue operation – are uncannily apropos for the occasion: in Field Instruction class, a review of winter survival skills, and, in English class, the famous Jack London short story on the perils of winter weather, “To Build a Fire”. These lessons should seem very up-close-and-personal to the students today.
Staff members will be reviewing and discussing our Lost Student Protocols over the next few days. The Vilas County Sheriff’s Department and other emergency personnel who worked with us over the weekend were very complimentary about our procedures and in fact repeatedly expressed surprise and approval regarding our high level of preparedness and methodical search process. There is always room for improvement, of course, especially in such high-stakes situations, and I am sure we will find some helpful adjustments we can make as a result of our experience. We will also be meeting for a formal de-briefing with representatives from all of the agencies and organizations that came to our aid and have already begun to discuss with them ways in which we can plan to coordinate our efforts even better should the need arise in the future.
A big thank you again not only to all who helped in the search but to all those who kept us in their thoughts and prayers — and for the many kind messages that were sent. It was wonderful to receive all those notes of encouragement and support while we were going through such a difficult experience.