It was dark, cold and dangerous, but Tim MacFarlane was in his element. The glacier-fed waters of Alice Lake, 60 km north of Vancouver, had claimed one life already that mid-August day. Just hours earlier, 22-year-old athlete Allen Yan, training for a coming triathlon, had been seen swimming across the lake. Witnesses had observed the young man appear to struggle in the water, then sink into its dark depths. Now, MacFarlane, wearing full scuba gear and tethered by a rope to a partner, was working his way across the lake’s murky bottom by sense of touch. It was his second dive in the hour since he and his Abbotsford, B.C.-based Canadian Amphibious Search Team had reached the scene of Yan’s disappearance. Soon, he would have to surface. Then, he recalls, ‘With the lowest air reserve possible, I reached out with my left hand and got him—by his toe.”
Macabre as it may seem, MacFarlane and his dozen or so CAST teammates seek out such moments at every opportunity. They willingly spend most weekends and many evenings away from their families to recover the bodies of people believed to have died in the water or wilderness, often long after official search-and-rescue attempts have ended. They do the often stressful work for hire where they can, or for a donation to their considerable operating costs. But frequently, they do it for nothing, confronting death in its most horrific visages out of a rare passion for seeing a job through. We’re here for the families who have been told by the RCMP, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve done as much as we can,’ ” explains MacFarlane, himself the father of two young daughters. “The mission is to find these people and bring them home, to have closure for the family.”
Kathy Flaig knows how much that can mean to surviving family members. On Nov.
16, 1996, just a week short of his 18th birthday, her son Trevor, an avid outdoorsman and freshly minted metalworker with dreams of becoming a mechanic, went duck hunting with a friend on the marshes of the Fraser River, southeast of Vancouver. Tragedy struck when a wave capsized the pair’s skiff: the friend survived, Trevor went under. After 48 hours, the official search ended. A week later, MacFarlane’s team found Trevor’s body not far from the area that police had searched. We were so appreciative,” says Flaig. “It was really hard, but I had to see him. I had to say goodbye— know that he was brought home.”
Police or fire department dive squads exist in most provinces. The RCMP in British Columbia has 45 divers on its underwater recovery team, scattered across the province; the Calgary fire department’s unit is considered one of the best in North America. But public agency budgets do not permit openended searches—or even, at times, ensure that police or fire department divers will be
able to turn out at all. Even members of the Mounties’ dive unit, notes RCMP underwater recovery team co-ordinator Cpl. Allen Gray, all perform dive work as a secondary role to other duties.
« To fill the gap, the B.C.-based CAST team has entry requirements on a level g with the professionals. Most on the team, g which includes several dog handlers and £ mountain-rescue specialists as well as divers, t are off-duty members of closely related £ occupations. MacFarlane and co-founder I Jim Garrett are both rescue specialists with £ the Canadian Coast Guard. There are sever| al firefighters, a police officer and a ranger at I a wilderness park. All had participated in of5 ficial searches before joining the team. All had shared the frustration of having to stop looking before a body was returned to a grieving family.
But what finally prompted Garrett and MacFarlane to assemble their unusual search team in 1995 was a cover story that appeared in Maclean’s that July, detailing the distress of the Potton family of St. Catharines, Ont., after their 24-year-old daughter, Ann Marie, went missing in October, 1994, while hiking on Whistler Mountain. A search was called off after eight unsuccessful days (her body was found months later). ‘That,” says Garrett, “is what made us realize the importance, if somebody’s out there, of giving the family someone to turn to.”
MacFarlane, Garrett and crew approach their search for human remains with as many modern tools as they can muster. MacFarlane, a stocky, 32-year-old former private investigator, typically begins the search by interviewing witnesses and family members to build a case profile that includes the missing person’s likely frame of
Garrett (above); CAST member Melanie Robson with team dog Bruce: grim mission
mind and last known position when alive. The team balances that information against their combined experience of how people— and bodies—behave under different combinations of terrain, weather and stress. The search itself can include such sophisticated techniques as side-scanning underwater sonar, to locate the most promising areas for a dive. At least one knowledgeable observer credits MacFarlane’s extensive homework, as much as the team’s diving skill, for CAST’s track record. “It’s his ability to go back, step by step, and reconstruct,” says Bob Teather, a Vancouver-based author and expert on underwater investigation, “that leads to their high degree of success where others have failed.”
For MacFarlane, though, there is clearly more at work than the intellectual challenge of unravelling a mystery. Since moving from his native St. Lambert, Que., to British Columbia in 1989 to join the coast guard, he has participated in dozens of hazardous marine rescues. Few, he says, have ever packed the same satisfaction as helping locate a family’s missing relative, sometimes long after they have died. “It’s more of an emotional rescue,” he muses.
Sometimes, the passage of time can even aid a search. While other British Columbians barbecued their way through Labor Day, MacFarlane and several CAST members hiked through dense bush to the base of a waterfall near Cultus Lake, 90 km east of Vancouver. Late last May, three youths were celebrating their impending high-school graduation at the edge of Liumchen Creek, upstream from the waterfall, when one fell in. A second youngster jumped in to help, only to be swept away in the torrent—while his friend managed to scramble out of the water to safety. A search failed to find the missing 17-year-old. By Labor Day, however, the water in the creek had fallen far below its spring level. Shortly after reaching the bottom of the remote waterfall, the team located the teen’s badly decomposed body, wedged between rocks.
There are at least a dozen other people missing in British Columbia whose bodies MacFarlane believes the team could recover. But like similar organizations, CAST faces a chronic shortfall in income to cover its $1,000to $5,000-a-day search costs. Earlier this summer, CAST’s founders established a charitable arm called the Omega Foundation to seek support from individuals and service groups for their work. “There is no glory in it,” says MacFarlane. “There’s no gold mine. You’re doing a very dirty job—for all the right reasons.” In MacFarlane’s case, both that job and his regular one will be put on hold this week. The B.C. body hunter was scheduled to fly to Halifax on the weekend, to help counsel coast guard personnel traumatized by the search for remains of victims of the Swissair Flight 111 disaster. It was one search he was just as happy not to have taken part in himself. □
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