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Community Builders: Finders of the lost

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Karen and Mark Mihaljevich of Jackson County Search and Rescue.

Q: How did you get involved in Jackson County Search and Rescue?

Karen: In 1998 a young boy, Derrick Engebretson, became lost near Rocky Point on a family outing. They never found him even with an extensive search. I kept thinking, “if they had another dog on that team, he could have been found.” That’s what got me started.

Mark: Karen joined the canine unit, they practiced twice a week. I said, “I’m never going to see my wife if I don’t join too.”

Q: It seems obvious, but why do you think Search and Rescue is important?

Karen: I just can’t imagine being lost and scared. It feels so good to bring someone home on a successful search. And if deceased, it brings closure to the family. We’re all volunteers. We don’t need recognition. We’re just here to help.

Mark: It’s a way to give back to the community for us. Karen loves animals, so she got on the canine team. I got involved and it really struck a bell with me; not only helping, but all the skills you learn. If you love the outdoors, if you love helping people and working with good people, then it’s a great volunteer activity.

Q: What kind of training have you been through?

Mark: Members take courses on blood-borne pathogens, CPR, haz-mat and many other topics as part of the basic training. Currently, Chris Duran and I are in charge of running our state-required 48-hour academy, which teaches tracking, search tactics, land navigation with GPS and compass. It’s pretty comprehensive. Everybody comes in at the base level and starts as a “ground pounder.” From there you can join a specialized team.

Karen: The canine team is one of those specialized teams. It takes a real commitment to be on the canine team. You have to prove your mettle before we’ll start working with your dog.

Q: What other types of specialized teams are there?

Mark: We have water rescue, horse, ATV, snow response and technical rope teams. And we have two brand-new teams, drone and dirt bike teams. You don’t have to join a specialized unit, but they’re open to all members.

Q: How many searches in Jackson County might you be called out on in a year?

Mark: Well, it averages over 100 searches per year. Many searches end with quickly locating the lost person or they walk out of the woods on their own. It could be quick, or it could last for days.

Q: Has technology changed searches?

Karen: Cellphones made a huge difference. If a missing person has a cell signal, they can call 911 and we can get their coordinates of latitude and longitude. And if a phone call doesn’t go through, a text message will. We had a guy up on Dutchman Peak who couldn’t call out but was able to get a text message to his mother in Ventura, California. She called 911 up here and we were able to locate him.

Mark: When we first started, many of our searches were two, three and four days long. Now, there are more rescues but less searching. The reason is modern technology. In the old days we might have 20 or 30 missions in a summer on Mount McLoughlin alone. Now, if somebody has a cellphone and can call, we can get their coordinates and either go rescue them or talk them down the trail. Of course, cellphones don’t work everywhere. Or the battery goes dead, and then you’re back to the old search methods.

Q: What are typical Search and Rescue operations?

Karen: It’s seasonal. Right now, it’s lost hunters. During the winter we get snowboarders that go out of bounds. In the spring we’re looking for mushroom hunters. There are more and more missions for older people with dementia.

Mark: Recently we’ve had several searches for kids with autism spectrum disorders.

Karen: One of our Search and Rescue members, Skip Snyder, started a program in all of our elementary schools called “Lost but Found.” SAR members go into the schools and teach the kids what to do if they get lost. We rarely have lost children.

Q: What is the largest search you’ve been on?

Mark: One of the biggest searches was the James Kim search. They were the San Francisco family who tried to drive across Bear Camp Road at the beginning of winter. That was a multiday search, and we were heavily involved. Mr. Kim was found dead, but the family was found alive. However, out of that tragedy came some positive responses.

Karen: The governor appointed a commission to evaluate that particular search and to look at Search and Rescue in Oregon generally. It resulted in us all picking up our game. Before the Kim search, the counties sort of did their own thing.

Mark: Now it’s much more cooperative. We’ve formed a community of search-and-rescue units in 12 counties in Southern Oregon and Northern California. It’s called CORSAR, California-Oregon Search and Rescue. We are now one big family.

Q: How is Search and Rescue funded?

Mark: Jackson County supports Search and Rescue through taxes we all pay. Many other counties don’t get anywhere near the support we do.

Karen: Sheriff Winters was so supportive of Search and Rescue, as is Sheriff Sickler. Consequently, we’re probably the best-equipped SAR unit in Oregon.

Q: Do you have to be young and super fit for Search and Rescue?

Mark: There are jobs for people of all ages. We have members who can’t hike, but they might work in “call command” or they can drive vehicles. If a hunter gets lost, we don’t automatically send Search and Rescue members out on foot. We have our team drive around to locate their vehicle. Once you find their vehicle, then we’ll drive all the roads honking horns, flashing lights and turning on sirens in the hope of drawing them out. If that is unsuccessful, we send in the ground units.

Karen: We also bring in the dog teams as soon as possible. The hunter’s truck may be found, but you don’t know which direction they walked. We use scent-specific tracking dogs to determine their direction of travel.

Q: Dogs can pick up a scent of someone as they walk through the woods?

Karen: For the tracking dogs, you have to have a scent article. Usually, tracking dogs can detect a person that has recently walked through the woods. Once we have a direction of travel you send in the air-scent dogs with the ground teams.

Q: What are air-scent dogs?

Karen: They’re not scent-specific. You don’t give them a scent article. They’ll find any human, dead or alive. They come back and give the handler an alert and lead them back to the person.

Mark: Karen trained two dogs that were both wilderness air-scent dogs.

Q: You’ve learned so much from doing this.

Mark: As a member of the canine team, like Karen, you have to get extremely good at many disciplines. You have to be not only top-notch with a GPS, but also with a compass and map. You have to read which way the wind’s going and how the terrain affects scent, so your dog is in the right position. It’s pretty technical. That’s why I’m not on the dog team.

Karen: He does a lot of technical stuff with the rope team. There’s an incredible amount of technical knowledge in that too.

Q: How did you end up in Southern Oregon?

Mark: We were both raised in Southern California.

Karen: But we didn’t want to raise our kids there.

Mark: We wanted to live in rural America. We were part of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s.

Karen: We traveled for seven weeks around the country, looking for a place to call home. We went as far east as Michigan and then narrowed it down to either Colorado or Oregon. We decided on Oregon, as it was closer to our families in L.A.

Mark: We built a house on 10 acres of land in rural Williams when land was cheap. Ten acres with a well and septic for $12,000; and built a pretty decent house for $20 a square foot.

Q: How long did you live in Williams?

Mark: We were there for 15 years. It was a wonderful place to raise a young family, but we decided to move to Ashland in 1990 to have our two children in Ashland schools, so we moved our family and our business to Ashland.

Q: What was your business?

Mark: Siskiyou Gift and Buckle Company. I had a little leather shop in L.A., as I worked my way through college. That’s when I met Karen. She did our books and tax returns.

Karen: He showed up one April 14, about 9 o’clock at night with a box full of receipts. I bailed him out, so I made him marry me.

Mark: We were both going to college at the time. I was going to be a teacher. I had my California and Oregon teaching credentials and a master’s degree in political science. After we moved to Oregon, I realized how little teaching was going to pay in 1976; we would have qualified for food stamps. We went into business instead.

Q: How have you seen Southern Oregon change over the years?

Mark: Southern Oregon was very rural and had much more of a small-town feel.

Karen: There was no mall then.

Mark: The good side is that we could buy land and housing cheap. Since then, Southern Oregon has grown like crazy.

Q: What’s kept you here? You could have moved Siskiyou Buckle anywhere.

Karen: We love the terrain and all the outdoor things to do. Our friends and neighbors are great.

Mark: We love our house in rural Ashland. We are partners in a cabin at Diamond Lake. And over the years a lot of our family has moved up here. All in all, Southern Oregon has been good to us.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

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Bio: Mark and Karen Mihaljevich

Mark and Karen were raised in Southern California when kids still played outside until dinner. Mark spent a couple years as a VISTA volunteer in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan before graduating from Cal State Northridge with a master’s degree in political science.

Karen worked as a bookkeeper and tax preparer for an accounting firm while attending college.

Mark and Karen met in 1970 and married in 1972. They moved to Oregon with their 2-month-old daughter, Kate, in 1976, later buying land and building a home in Williams. Their son, Kye, was born in 1980.

They started Siskiyou Gift and Buckle Company and ran it for 30 years until it was sold in 2001. The Mihaljevichs moved from the Applegate to Ashland in 1989.

Karen joined the Jackson County Search and Rescue K-9 Unit in 1999. Mark joined shortly thereafter and is a search manager. Five years ago, Karen was diagnosed with Lyme disease and had to end her volunteer work with the K-9 unit. Karen has published a historical western and continues to write comedic fiction.

Mark and Karen Mihaljevich at their Ashland home. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune