Gitte and Andrea Venderby don't have a typical mother-daughter relationship — in fact, their bond is quite extraordinary.
At any moment, Gitte and Andrea might have to drop whatever they're doing to head out on a call from the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue (MCSOSAR) team to locate a missing person, assist fire crews or extract someone hurt deep in the forest.
The Venderbys of West Linn are two of more than 50 volunteers — including adults and youth as young as 14 — who make up the MCSOSAR team. Last year Gitte and her daughter learned about opportunities to volunteer with MCSOSAR and become trained in wilderness search and rescue. They quickly became enamored with the organization's mission to search for and provide aid to people in distress. Today, the pair are active members of the team's volunteer roster.
"We'd drop anything to go out on a search," Gitte said. " We get calls at 10 p.m., we'll get them early in the morning, Andrea will be sitting in the classroom and we just quickly get our stuff together and go."
It all starts with nine months of training where you learn different types of searches, how to prepare a backpack for a search, medical training and survival skills. Before becoming officially certified to join the MCSOSAR team, a series of rigorous exams and physically tests must be passed, including knowledge of state maps, global positioning systems, radio transmitting, first aid and more.
Weekly meetings provide consistent affirmation of that nine-month educational period, and outings once a month help to maintain survival skills and physical conditioning needed to perform searches that can last for as long as 36 hours, according to the Venderbys.
One training experience required them to hike in wet and cold conditions for 12-15 hours straight carrying 40-pound backpacks, stopping only to cook a bit of food over a fire before continuing on. They would camp in 22-degree weather with snow falling, wake up and continue hiking an additional six miles.
Following that grueling training exercise, Andrea received her first bit of real-world experience.
"We got back to the station (from training) and there was a call for a search. All the fatigue just goes away. You just want to help, so we turned around and went back out," she said.
The Venderbys both claim they weren't rugged outdoors people before starting with MCSOSAR, but the experience has helped them expand their outdoor pursuits. Just a couple weeks ago the pair climbed Mt. St. Helens with friends, not only to condition physically for potential search and rescue calls, but for recreation as well. It works both ways, Andrea said, with search and rescue providing a set of guidelines for safety and preparedness that they now follow when hiking or camping on their own time.
"Now we just can't get enough (of the wilderness)," Gitte said.
Much of the MCSOSAR team's training and search missions take place in the Columbia River Gorge, where hiking trails, state parks and wilderness areas stretch high into the Cascade foothills. Since September of 2016, the Venderbys have given more than 400 hours to MCSOSAR training and missions.
Most recently, the Venderbys were called along with the rest of the MCSOSAR team to assist fire crews fighting the Eagle Creek Fire by notifying residents of evacuation orders in the small towns of Warrendale and Dodson.
"It was definitely scary, especially for us who are on SAR because we've spent hundreds of hours training out in the Gorge just this year, so to see it a lot of it being destroyed was hard," Andrea said. "Being able to let people know about the evacuation orders felt good to help, even though it was a sad situation."
A lot of the time, Andrea and her mother are split into separate units of the MCSOSAR team, and that is done by design to cut down distraction and to allow each member to learn and develop search and rescue skills independently.
But being involved in the same organization and returning home with each other definitely has a huge upside, they explained.
"There are things we learn that are confidential for only people who are searching, so it helps to be able to share that with each other because it can be very mentally stressful," Andrea said. "We do a lot of our preparations together, and it's nice to be able to talk things through when we get home."
With two younger children — Arthur, an eighth-grader, and Olivia, a sophomore — who are heavily involved in golf in West Linn, Gitte explains that sharing the search and rescue experience with Andrea has brought the two closer.
"We spend a lot of time out on the golf course, so to have found something with Andrea that is just for her and I is an amazing experience, and I really enjoy it," she said.
"It definitely fits both of our personalities well," Andrea added. "It has also helped me build confidence."
For Andrea, a senior at West Linn High School, her experience with the MCSOSAR team has provided confirmation of her professional calling to enter the medical field to become a surgeon. On top of search and rescue, she currently volunteers in the emergency room at Providence Willamette Falls Medical Center, and has completed medical camps at the University of California, Los Angeles, Stanford and Johns Hopkins.
"I think this has definitely given me insight into how it is to be in the medical field because there's a certain stress factor that comes with it," Andrea said.
The Venderbys hope that their story will inspire more youth and adults to join the MCSOSAR as they continue their fall recruitment drive to bolster the team's presence in Multnomah County and surrounding areas.
"I love seeing all these youth dedicate their time to something this important," Gitte said. "It's inspiring (that) we have this group of kids who will drop everything to go help and be there for others."
For more information visit mcsosar.org/join-now or call Sheriff Sgt. Mark Herron at 503-988-6788.