Susan Purvis concedes she wasn’t comfortable standing near a Montrose stone quarry in 2003, but with her search dog, Tasha, at her side, she was ready to help.
Authorities were processing the scene of a grim find: the remains of murder victim Irene Trujillo. They wanted to put Tasha’s nose to work.
“They just wanted to make sure, ruling out other areas she might have been, what had they missed. We were standing there sizing up the scene with the deputy. He had been at the crime scene. My dog sniffed his pants and she alerts,” Purvis recounted.
“That’s how good these dogs are. A dog’s telling us so much information every day, whether it’s a search day or not. Being able to read and communicate with an animal is amazing. It’s a big job.”
The Labrador retriever wasn’t ready for that kind of job the moment Purvis adopted her in 1995, at five weeks old — trained, certified search dogs are made as much as they are born. Trial, error and effort took Purvis’ “Black Dog” from an excitable puppy to a renowned search, rescue and recovery dog.
The journey was a personal one for Purvis, as well, one that helped her evaluate what was important as she fought her way to acceptance in mountain rescue organizations, became an expert in wilderness-based medical practices, and navigated a rocky marriage while splitting her time between searching for people in Colorado and searching for gold in Latin America as a contract geologist.
The longtime Crested Butte resident who now lives in Whitefish, Montana, catalogues it all in her memoir, “Go Find: My Journey to Find the Lost — and Myself,” a well-written blend of personal growth and the ins, outs (plus politics) of mountain rescue teams.
Purvis will be speaking about her memoir and work at 7 p.m. July 17, at the Cobble Creek Golf Courts club house in Montrose. She will also be in town for a presentation at Maggie’s Bookstore downtown at 7 p.m., July 22 and is making stops throughout her old stomping grounds in Ouray, Ridgway and Lake City as well.
Purvis put pen to paper with more than a little trepidation.
“I had a lot of fear about releasing my book. There are flaws in all systems, especially a volunteer system. I pointed out the problems. I was afraid to release that, and to go back to Crested Butte,” she said.
To her surprise, when she did, most of the men on her original patrol team showed up for her book tour, and were welcoming. “I feel like I finally made full circle. I’m glad I went. I needed that validation,” she said.
Her career is not short of validation, as it led to her and Tasha being honored in the Congressional Record, but what Purvis wanted and needed was acceptance from the rescue community. Baffled and angry upon learning of a 1989 avalanche that buried three children in their yard, inspiration hit: “What if I got a dog and trained it to save lives?”
Unsurprisingly, it was easier to say it than to do it, but Purvis — and Tasha — persisted through the highs and lows of what amounted to near-ceaseless effort.
Tasha was trained in air-scent detection, for example, but did not pass with flying colors on the first go — the winds were strong and upwind of the “victim” she was supposed to detect.
“I failed that test. I did 99 percent of everything right, but failed to find him,” Purvis said. “That was my biggest teacher. My dog was too young; I still hadn’t figured it all out.”
The woman-dog team worked ski patrol at Crested Butte, in avalanche rescue, and also on recovery missions, one of which took them high up the mountains with Olathe Spray Service in a last-ditch effort to find the remains of Richard Ford, whose plane crashed in 2005, killing him and three family members.
The bodies of his young son and parents were found within days of the crash near Whitehouse Mountain, but 39 days later, Ford had not been found.
Tasha and Purvis had one hour. Conditions were otherwise too dangerous. The book, in a tense countdown, details what they achieved as Tasha differentiated between old scent from the bodies already recovered and Ford’s remains — and Purvis had to make critical judgment calls as to just what her dog was tracking.
“It was a scary mission. Something as epic as a plane crash on top of a really gnarly peak in the San Juan Mountains (requires teamwork),” she said.
“What you have to learn is trust. You have to trust that everyone is really good at their job. I had to trust the sheriff. I had to trust the pilot, the search and rescue members, that they could navigate that whole mission.”
Helping find the the lost is rewarding.
“We train so hard and then it’s like putting the final piece of the puzzle together. We, in a way, are detectives, too. We’re using our entire skill set,” said Purvis.
“I say two simple words to my dog, ‘Go, find,’ and we had such a communication and bond that she’s ‘I’m all in.’ What’s their (dogs’) drive? Why are they so focused on it?”
On scenes like the Trujillo homicide, that whole-package skill set also comes into play. Tasha was brought in to sniff for possibly missed evidence. She found a bone fragment that had been overlooked.
“We can train our dogs on 200-pound corpses and we can train them on thimble-sized portions. What am I having her tell me?” Purvis said, explaining Tasha’s alerts could be the smell of decomp on the clothing of someone at a scene, all the way to a human body.
“That’s the tricky part of working a human remains-detection dog.”
People outside of the rescue community may have little clue as to what it takes to have a trained and certified search dog — to Purvis’ frustration, even some employed in public safety think an average police K9 is the same thing, when not all police dogs are in fact trained to search for people and bodies. Failure to bring in a properly trained dog can cost valuable time.
“They have no idea. For me as a human, I made a promise to my dog and myself that I would never leave anyone behind. You have to go to bed at night knowing if you went into the mountains, you didn’t leave Little Johnny behind.
“That’s a huge responsibility.”
“Go Find” was a decade in the making and Tasha did not live for its publication. Purvis has not gotten another dog to train and when she’s asked about her longtime companion, “I go almost flat,” she said.
“I don’t even know how I can explain it.We become so codependent and kind of lopsided on that. I haven’t had another dog since Tasha died. It’s our human nature. We become so codependent on another human or animal to make us whole. What happens when that human or pet leave us? It’s huge grieving time.”
The book has not only helped her feel validated, but also, to move past that need.
“It’s so funny how we wait heavily on validation we can never get. … As women, we have to work three times as hard. We want simple validation and sometimes, we’ll just never get it,” Purvis said.
But, writing the book forced her to consider why publishing it wasn’t validation enough.
“Now, all that’s not important to me. As a writer now, I can’t care what people think, because if I do, I’ll never get anything done as a writer. Because someone’s not going to like what you write, no matter how good it is,” she said.
Literal validation was necessary for Purvis to advance with Tasha — they had to hit measurable achievements and, for instance, at first be part of a search and rescue team in order to pursue certification.
“Especially in search and rescue with a dog, my whole career was about being validated. In order to move forward and be deployed (on searches), I had to be validated,” she said.
Purvis was rewarded with trust.
“That’s a huge gift and an honor. It all comes down to, how do you get the message out to be called?”
Go Find is a message to others, too.
“I just wanted to share with the world what it takes to find purpose and passion and be good at what you do. We were good. That’s super exciting and something to be proud of,” Purvis said.
“It starts a discussion — are people following their purpose and passion in their life, and what does it take?”
Book tour/conversation dates
July 17: Cobble Creek club house, 7 p.m.
July 18: Ridgway Public Library, noon, with retired Ouray search and rescue member Karen Risch, author of “No Individual Heroes.”
July 19: Ouray Bookshop, 3 - 5 p.m., with Risch.
July 22, 7 p.m., Maggie’s Bookstore, Montrose.
July 23, 6 p.m., Lake City Public Library.
About Susan Purvis
Susan Purvis owns Crested Butte Outdoors International, now based in Whitefish, Montana. She teaches wilderness medicine and has appeared in multiple national publications, as well as on the BBC and Discovery.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.