Our Protectors

We don’t usually think about them until we need them. And by that point, we really need them. Police, fire, search and rescue, U.S. Coast Guard, advocates for children—they all step in at times of crisis.For some, like those who fight wildfires, the work is intensely physical. For others, like search-and-rescue, it can be highly specialized—picture rescuing someone on a rock ledge with ropes and a litter. Or our protectors might need a high degree of technological and psychological knowhow, like the police detective and children’s advocate who help protect kids from online predators and other criminals. In many cases, whenever our protectors get dressed for work, they are preparing to put themselves in harm’s way to help people they probably don’t even know. On the next pages, we profile some of our North Sound protectors to find out how, and why, they do what they do.

Ed Honcoop and a fellow search and rescue volunteer came to a fork in the trail and had to make a decision that likely decided the fate of a man’s life. It was the middle of the night; temperatures had dropped to the low 40s and a man was somewhere on Chuckanut Mountain wearing only a tank top and shorts.

A signed junction indicated a left turn to Pine and Cedar Lakes Trail or right onto Hemlock Trail. They turned left. Before long, the man who had become separated from his friends came into view. He was wandering around the mountain in pitch dark with his only light source being the flash from his camera. “He was very happy when we found him,” Honcoop said. “We loaned him a headlamp and hiked him out part of the way. We put him on the back of an ATV and rode him down the hill.”

What if they had turned right? Luckily for the unprepared hiker, he’ll never have to find out. This is just one of the hundreds of missions Honcoop has been a part of as a member of the Whatcom County Search and Rescue Council. Formed in the 1970s, the council is composed of seven divisions, including the Summit to Sound unit in which Honcoop is the ATV team leader. He joined the rescue council in January 1995, helped form the unit in 2001, and has been helping save lives ever since.

All mission calls come from the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department, under which the rescue council works, and any of the 200 volunteer members who are available will respond depending on what type of call it is. “If someone’s missing, the sheriff won’t call us out unless they have an area to focus on,” Honcoop said. “We won’t just run around the county and see what we can find.”

Summit to Sound, which has 55 members, does ground searching, evacuations, swift water rescue, evidence searching, and even has dog teams—pretty much everything other than alpine rescues. They typically get two or three calls per month, but it fluctuates and calls often come in spurts. Sometimes, a search results in a sad discovery, but the council can provide help in unexpected ways.

One of the more high-profile calls Honcoop went on was the murder of Keri Lynne Sherlock on Oct. 3, 1998. Search and rescue crews found her body 30 miles east of Bellingham near Mount Baker Highway. A backpack and Sherlock’s purse discovered by the crew led detectives to James Allen Kinney, who was later convicted of aggravated first-degree murder for Sherlock’s death. “We were told by law enforcement that it was instrumental in getting the conviction,” Honcoop said. “We just do what they ask us to do, we find as much as we can and turn it over to detectives. Down the road we’ll probably get an ‘Atta boy,’ and that’s what we do.”

Five tips when hiking in the woods

  1. Be ready for whatever weather or possible changes in the environment you might run into. That means carry emergency clothing and outerwear.
  2. Always make sure someone knows where you’re going, and when you’re expected to be back.
  3. If you’re going on a day hike, it doesn’t hurt to carry enough stuff to stay overnight if something happens.
  4. Be aware of your surroundings; keep your eyes open and pay attention. It might help if you get lost or disoriented.
  5. If you’re crossing a creek in the morning this time of the year, be aware that if it has snow runoff; the water could be a lot higher later in the afternoon because of the snow melt.

To continue reading Our Protector feature series, click here for the next story.

"'If someone’s missing the sheriff won’t call us out unless they have an area to focus on... We won’t just run around the county and see what we can find.'"