Search and rescue veteran in Alberni retires after 47 years

After 47 years and 1,200 searches Howie Thomas, 78, is retiring from the Alberni Valley Rescue Squad.

Howie Thomas has been on more than 1

Howie Thomas has been on more than 1

To the untrained eye there’s nothing unusual about a tuft of grass behind the AV Rescue Squad Hall.

But to 78-year-old Howie Thomas the grass and ground just around it show something else.

It’s lightly flattened, some grass blades are broken, and a small stick has left an impression in the grass before lifting.

The impression is a footprint more  than a day old, Thomas said.

An unassuming smattering of pine cones lays nearby, but he sees something with two of them.

“See how they’re half dark and half light coloured?” he asks, holding a cone up.

“Someone kicked it over when they walked through here – this is sign.”

Thomas was a tracker with the Alberni Valley Rescue Squad, and served as its tracking instructor.

Thomas retired from the rescue squad on March 9 after 47 years of service.

“It’s time to let a younger man take my place now,” Thomas said.

“I’ll be around though — if they need me they’ll phone.”

According to rescue squad president Hans Goorts, Thomas is the squad’s longest serving member and has participated in more than 1,200 searches.

Thomas didn’t get involved with the club until his early 30s, but he was already prepared for it.

Born and raised in the Alberni Valley,Thomas grew up with no Internet or cable television and his playground was the outdoors.

“Lathom Road was all gravel, there was no concrete up town it was all boardwalks, and we walked all over the place,” he said.

Thomas left school at age 18 and travelled to Vancouver, where he worked as a cook/ deckhand on a boat fortwo years before returning to Port Alberni.

He worked in the logging industry but travelled to Calgary in the summers where he met and married his late wife Rose.

He scuba dived recreationally, and the skill ultimately connected him with the rescue squad in 1963.

“A guy had fallen off a wharf and into the water while holding a case of beer,” he said.

“They called me so I took my diving gear, went down and found him.”

Scuba diving was part of the volunteer search and rescue services then, and squad members asked Thomas to join.

“I already knew Fred Boyko, Donnie Bryant and a lot of the other guys,” he said.

Over his 47 years with the squad Thomas served in nearly every capacity – diver, equipment manager, tracker and president.“I pretty much did it all, but members are required to do different duties,” he said.

Diving mostly involved body recovery and not rescue, and the RCMP eventually assumed that responsibility.

“That way they could conduct their investigations right there from start to finish,” he said.

Thomas continued to dive for then-MacMillan Bloedel, and earned a commercial diving ticket from Royal Roads University.

And he stayed involved with the squad, changing his focus to tracking.

The method is an art that you train your mind and your eyes to master, he said.

You look for broken branches, stick imprints in soft ground, rocks that have been kicked over or ground that has been disturbed in some way.

“You start to see things that other people don’t,” he said.

You won’t catch up to a lost person while tracking because trackers are slow moving.

But you’ll find what area they’re in, establish a compass bearing of their direction, and coordinate the information with searchers to concentrate their efforts.

He relinquished teaching tracking two years go, and the duties have since been taken up by member Jane Whitticase — a former student of Thomas’s.

There were no female squad members when Thomas first started, but now half he members are female, he said.

The members used to be predominantly loggers and mill workers at one time too.

“But now there’s bookkeepers and salespeople,” he said. “Times change, but everyone still wants to help people in distress.”

Thomas has been involved in countless searches during his 47 years, but one search stands out starkly.

“It was a little girl who was lost on the Alberni side of Horne Lake—we never found her,” Thomas  said.

“I don’t talk about it much but I remember it and always will.”

The incident happened in the early 1980s, Thomas said.

The girl had gone to Horne Lake with her mother and grandfather and had wandered off.

The rescue squad was called and aided by bloodhounds they searched for three to four days but came up emptyhanded, Thomas said.

A month later, two boys hiking in the area stopped for lunch and alerted authorities after detecting an unusual odour nearby.

“The little girl had crawled into some blow down and that’s where they found her,” Thomas said.

The failed search still haunts Thomas.

“I can still remember the mother calling out her daughter’s name,” Thomas said.

“You never forget something like that after you’ve heard it.”

Back at the tracks behind the rescue hall, Thomas removes his red vest and pondered why

he stayed with the squad for so long and about his future.

“It’s like anything else in life you stick with — you do it because you want to do it,” he said.

His retirement means he’ll have some time on his hands, but Thomas isn’t a man to waste time.

He floor curls one day a week with the Sunshine Club.

And he has woodcutting, house repair, gardening and hunting to do.

His interests haven’t changed since his younger years, he said, but his body has.

“My heart still wants to do all the things I used to do. But my mind is telling

me to retire and my body says it’s time now.”

Just Posted

AW Neill Elementary School in Port Alberni. (NEWS FILE PHOTO)
SD70 chooses new name for AW Neill School in Port Alberni

New name honours Nuu-chah-nulth Peoples’ connection to region

Douglas Holmes, current Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District chief administrative officer, is set to take on that position at the Regional District of Nanaimo come late August. (Submitted photo)
Regional District of Nanaimo’s next CAO keen to work on building partnerships

Douglas Holmes to take over top administrator role with RDN this summer

Ron MacDonald fields questions at a news conference in Halifax on Sept. 27, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Finding ‘comfortable’ indigenous monitor tough task in Tofino-area shooting death

Julian Jones case hampered by difficulty finding a civilian comfortable with privacy protocols

Port Alberni RCMP officer in command Insp. Eric Rochette presents longtime community policing volunteer Louie Aumair with a OIC appreciation certificate. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)
Port Alberni RCMP honour longtime volunteer

First responders receive support from broader community

The Dock+ is located on Harbour Road in Port Alberni. (SUSAN QUINN / Alberni Valley News)
PROGRESS 2021: Port Alberni’s food hub still growing a year later

The Dock hopes to open a retail store on Alberni’s busy waterfront

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

The Queen Victoria statue at the B.C. legislature was splattered with what looks like red paint on Friday. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)
Queen Victoria statue at B.C. legislature vandalized Friday

Statue splattered with red paint by old growth forest proponents

Police cars are seen parked outside Vancouver Police Department headquarters on Saturday, January 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver police officer charged with assault during an arrest in 2019

The service has released no other details about the allegations

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen receives medical attention after collapsing during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group B match between Denmark and Finland at Parken stadium in Copenhagen, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, Pool)
Christian Eriksen in stable condition, Euro 2020 match resumes

Eriksen was given chest compressions after collapsing on the field during a European Championship

Members of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Marine Mammal Response Program rescued an adult humpback what that was entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off of Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Response Program)
Rescuers free humpback ‘anchored’ down by prawn traps off Vancouver Island

Department of Fisheries and Oceans responders spend hours untangling whale

As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he feels a connection with the former students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
2 sides of the same coin: Ex-foster kids identify with residential school survivors

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says the child welfare system takes Indigenous children from their families

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Most Read