Yavapai County Search and Rescue: A 50-year Old Story of Heroes

Photo caption: Sheila Polk, bottom row second to the right, pictured with seven of her siblings. Her brother Joe, bottom row center, was rescued in the forest south of Prescott by the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue team approximately 50 years ago.

by Sheila Polk, Yavapai County Attorney

For me, “hero” will always mean the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team. Today, these highly skilled and trained volunteers operate in five teams including a jeep posse, an air group and with amazing canine partners. Fifty years ago, when the posse consisted of local ranchers and trackers, they came to the rescue when my younger brother Joe was lost in the woods south of Prescott.

I grew up in Phoenix, and my family frequently escaped the summer heat with weekend campouts at Wolf Creek Campground. Every afternoon, seven of my siblings and I would hike to a water hole on the Hassayampa while my parents rested back at camp with the two youngest in the family.

One day we left the swimming hole in two separate groups to hike back to camp. Despite my father’s stern warning to always stay together, my 8-year old brother Joe took a “shortcut” in hopes of catching up with the first group. Upon arrival at the campground, we quickly realized Joe was missing.

When my father was 93, he wrote his autobiography and included the following memory of my little brother’s search and rescue:

“On one campout at Wolf Creek, eight-year-old Joe left the group on the hike back from the swimming hole to take a shortcut, getting separated from his siblings. When we noticed he was lost, we all searched the area calling his name, to no avail. I got in my pickup and drove to the ranger station. The ranger called the county sheriff. The sheriff drove out to Wolf Creek and talked to the whole family. He explained that the county had a volunteer search posse, veteran cowmen who were experienced trackers. Soon, members of the search party began arriving in pick-up trucks pulling horse trailers. A van arrived with kitchen and camping equipment. The head of the group assured us that Joe was sleeping somewhere in the area and would be found by morning. He asked us to stop our part of the search as the trackers would be looking for Joe’s footprints and our searching would make their job more difficult.

“Included in our camping equipment was an antique three-quart coffee pot that I would keep on our campfire. My method of making coffee was to fill the pot with water, pour in some instant coffee, bring it to a boil, and then set it off on the edge of the fire to keep it warm. All that night, even though they had coffee in their cook van, posse searchers stopped by our camp to accept a cup of coffee saying, ‘You just can’t beat good ol’ campfire coffee.’

“Neither Lois nor I got much sleep that night worrying about Joe lost in the woods. The melody of one of my favorite Mexican songs, Niño Perdido, kept running through my mind. In the morning I looked down the road to glimpse one of the trackers riding toward our camp. As he came closer, I could see there were two people on the horse. As they came even closer I called Lois to come and look. The second rider was Joe. What a tremendous relief! Lois was shedding tears and I was too.

”After things calmed down, the tracker told how he was riding along following some footprints when he heard a voice calling, ‘Hey mister, I’m lost.’ There was Joe sitting under a tree.”

Sheila Polk is the Yavapai County Attorney. Her father, William John Sullivan, wrote the above excerpt in his memoirs about his 66-year marriage to his wife Lois, titled “We Had Fun,” published in 2013 by DWS Press, Glendale, Arizona.