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.”

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