Redemption at Checkpoint 13
Sometimes, the best prod is the threat of failure. In April, I posted a blog called “The Old College Try,” about my efforts to pass the nighttime LandNav test for my Search & Rescue (SAR) team, and being stymied by my nemesis, Checkpoint 13.
Checkpoint 13, I swear, borrowed the invisibility cloak from Harry Potter. It had attained mythological status for many people, including me; after several episodes of determined searching on my part several times, always at night, it always eluded me.
But in May, a larger test loomed: SARTECH II certification through the National Association of Search & Rescue. A notorious thing, SARTECH II involves showing proficiency at land navigation (map & compass—no GPS allowed), various grid search techniques, ropes and knots, map orientation based on direction and land features, and a written exam.
Members of my team at Kent County Search & Rescue held study groups for much of the winter to practice and learn together. We had16 members at the weekend-long refresher, followed two weeks later by the tests. Not everyone would pass, and we knew it. One of us was heading back for his fourth try (he made it this time!). SARTECH II is not easy. This realization led to a decision to sacrifice purity (not seeing Checkpoint 13 except in testing at night) for reassurance (if I can find Checkpoint 13, I can do anything) in my efforts to prepare for SARTECH II.
On a fine Saturday morning in May, several of us met at Yankee Springs Recreation Area in Middleville, Michigan. The leaves were newly budded and still small enough that the dense undergrowth wasn’t yet filled in by the green of full summer. We decided to work together on land navigation skills including pace count, accurate compass bearings, and how to incorporate terrain features by finding a few posts. We decided to find Checkpoint 13. Starting from Checkpoint #1, we shot a bearing, and headed through the woods.
It wasn’t there!
We fanned out, still couldn’t find it. We decided to try for a different post and come back to #13 from a different direction later. We found a couple of other posts, then returned to the mission of confirming the existence of that doggone post. I shot my bearing, judged the distance, and set off, pace-counting. In the woods, it’s 62 paces per 100 meters. The map indicated the post would be a couple of hundred meters from our point of departure from the trail. I held my compass, picked out a landmark, paced to it, then rechecked the bearing, sought out another landmark, pace-counted to it, again and again. As I reached my pre-assessed distance, suddenly (and this is when, in a movie, the music would swell) there it was! Checkpoint 13! What? Really?
“OMG,” I whispered, “it does exist!”
Best: my work was accurate. I was just two meters to the right of it. I wanted to hug that post, but instead I did a jig and had a colleague snap a few celebratory photos.
Then we decided to go from #13 on a reverse trajectory to see if we could hit Checkpost #1 from the other direction. If the original line of travel hadn’t worked, we reasoned (perhaps optimistically), maybe this would. I had to skirt a large, dense thicket, using a technique that would preserve the accuracy of my line of travel. Even with that complication, I managed the return trip such that I was just ten paces from the post when I arrived at the pre-assessed distance. Twice in one day I managed that difficult skill!
So it was that I entered SARTECH II testing. A hefty dose of humility and trepidation was bolstered by an underlying confidence built from the work my colleagues and I did to prepare.
Here’s the happy ending: all of those of us who did that work passed. It’s not a small thing. It means that, in the SAR world, search managers anywhere will know the degree and trustworthiness of our skills. It’s helpful. It could make a difference, knowing what we know.
I really like that feeling.