Search and Rescue celebrates 50 years

Nathan Steele

Rock climbing up steep granite peaks, hiking through densely wooded forest,  descending into the deep and dark depths of a cave, Custer County Search and Rescue (CCSAR) comes to the aid of lost and injured people wherever in the county they may be, and even assisting in the surrounding area too. And sometimes, they’re simply called to someone’s apartment or wherever else they can assist in getting someone from where they are to the safety of an ambulance.
The volunteer organization began as the Custer County Sheriff’s Reserves in 1973 as a 25-member team.  The group was formed in response to political unrest after the American Indian Movement’s activity in Custer that year. In those beginning days the team was called individually by phone, with no pagers or radios available.
Shortly after forming, they began responding to rock climbing mishaps and calls for lost hikers in the nearby area, shifting their focus away from riot control. Around this time, rock climbing had become a popular pastime in the Black Hills, as it still is today, but many people didn’t have the proper training or equipment, resulting in the necessity of having a search and rescue organization.
One incident in Custer State Park CCSAR responded to was for an Australian man who got stuck in the Needle’s Eye wearing his western boots. Now, original CCSAR member Ralph Kelley says, most climbers know what they’re doing and don’t require rescuing as often as in those days. By the late 1970s and ’80s, much of the work was looking for people—mainly hikers and hunters who had lost their way.
Much else has changed since those days, like the amount of equipment they’re provided for their searches.
“When we started, we didn’t have any equipment really except that Paul Meuhl (one of the original members) would furnish. As time went by, the county started pitching in and buying us a few things,” said Kelley. “We had our bodies and our knowledge of the Hills.”
One of the first pieces of equipment they acquired was a snowmobile, and since then, they’ve been building their inventory to now include side-by-sides, ATVs and even drones. They now have a shop and office space too.
The varied landscape of the area can present a wide array of obstacles, so the group, which has grown to 48 members, trains often to stay prepared for whatever perils or sticky situation it may respond to. For example, CCSAR practices ice rescues, say, in the case of an ice fisherman or ice skater falling through the ice of a lake—although it hopes to never to have to put these skills to use. Unlike many other groups in the country, CCSAR also responds to and assists in cave rescues.
“We have a unique area here,” said Steve Baldwin, former director of CCSAR.
Not only does the area’s terrain present unique challenges, but so does the number of tourists who may not know the area well. On the brighter side, the uniqueness of the area certainly keeps things interesting for the group, who often get to experience the most remote and seldom-seen parts of the county and surrounding area.
“It’s just beautiful country to go to work in. It’s a great excuse to go exploring a bit more,” said Sam Smolnisky, the current director of CCSAR.
Although the group dropped the name “Custer County Sheriff’s Reserves” as it became an official search and rescue organization, it still maintains a close relationship with the Custer County Sheriff’s Office and works with it often, like during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. It also assists with traffic control and evacuations during large forest fires, like the infamous Jasper Fire of 2000, or the Myrtle Fire in 2012, just to name a couple.
“We use them for everything, even something simple like helping with parade traffic. They do a lot for the community,” said Custer County Sheriff Marty Mechaley. “The Sheriff’s Office could not function without them. They are a valuable part of the team. Honestly they’re the best I’ve ever seen in my whole career.”
When Baldwin was the director of CCSAR, he kept a log of all of the searches—when SAR went, where it searched, how many people were involved, what it was searching for and what it found.
Baldwin and Kelley have many stories of searches: looking for a 12-year old boy that got lost on a school trip to Black Elk Peak and finding him days later, “holed up” under a cabin, but alive and well; or rescuing a mother and her two kids from a small ledge on the steep side of a rock face. Every call is different, they say.
“We searched for kids who didn’t even want to be found,” said Kelley.
He recalled searching for a young boy who had gotten lost. Every time someone would find him, he’d take off again. When they finally caught him, they asked the boy why he would run away.
“He said, ‘well, my mom and dad always told me, don’t talk to strangers,’” said Kelley.
CCSAR volunteers respond to calls no matter the time, no matter the weather.
“A lot of time it’s halfway through Christmas dinner, or halfway through your daughter’s 16th birthday party—it just has a knack of happening at inconvenient times,” said Baldwin.
“They show up at the drop of a hat, no matter the weather. It’s amazing,” said Kelley.
“And sometimes it might be for several days or 24 hours,” added Baldwin.
During the Jasper Fire,  volunteers from CCSAR were out for five days.
Having such a reliable and close-knit group of volunteers has been a highlight of Baldwin and Kelley’s time with the organization, and it’s something Smolnisky enjoys about leading the organization today.
“It’s not just one person. It’s a whole coordinated effort,” said Smolnisky, “We call ourselves a  family.”
It also responds no matter who it is they’re looking for or rescuing. Baldwin and Kelley say that sometimes they’ve heard complaints that CCSAR, which is partly funded by the county, shouldn’t use tax dollars to look for tourists, which is often the case.
“Well, I go out there to help find people because someday it might be my children out there who are lost and I can’t do it. Somebody’s gotta do it,” said Kelley.
Although it’s difficult and often thankless work, it can be rewarding too.
“Being able to find someone who is lost and starting to lose hope is really powerful,” said Smolnisky.
“I think all of us are proud of the job that we have done,” said Kelley.
Community support for the organization has grown over the years too.
“Through the years, the community has become more knowledgeable about search and rescue and more appreciative of what the organization does,” said Kelley.
“We get donations from people just out of the blue, having not done anything for them,” said Baldwin.
The Friends of Custer County Search and Rescue  was formed in 2013 as a means to raise money for the organization through fundraising and collecting donations. Because of this, the group is better able to buy some of their more expensive equipment, like a new drone, for instance.
On Saturday, the organization will celebrate its milestone 50th year with a community celebration at the Custer Beacon. Social hour begins at 5 p.m., and live music begins at 7 p.m. Food can be ordered from the Beacon menu. Current and former search and rescue members and their families are especially invited to attend, as is the area community that has supported the group through the past 50 years.
There will be a few of the original CCSAR members in attendance, as well as other current and former volunteers from the group. Also at the event will be some photos, memorabilia and gear from the organization’s history.
“It will be great for people to reminisce. I think the conversation and stories are going to be really great,” said Smolnisky.
Custer County Search and Rescue would like to thank the members of the Custer community for their support in all of its 50 years in existence.
“We wouldn’t be where we’re at today without them,” said Baldwin.

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