Marin teen praised for finding missing injured hiker

LARKSPUR, Calif. (KTVU) -- Kobe Pole isn't old enough to drive yet, but the Marin teenager who found a lost hiker in the Sierra foothills on Saturday says his age is not a big deal.

As it turns out, teenagers make up about one third of Marin County's 100-member Search and Rescue Unit, administered by the Sheriff's Department.

Pole, a sophomore at Redwood High School, admitted teachers and classmates were buzzing about the rescue at school Monday.

"There was definitely more commotion than I thought there would be," Pole told KTVU. "And they had me tell the story in class."

Pole modestly shares the limelight with team members.

But it was his sharp hearing that resulted in the discovery of 62-year-old Miyuki Harwood, an injured hiker missing since getting separated from her companions in remote Fresno County nine days earlier.

Harwood had fallen and suffered a broken leg, but managed to crawl to a creek, and had a small water filter, which she used to drink and stay alive.

She also had a distress whistle, which Pole heard faintly, a half mile away.

"At first, I was more surprised. And then I considered it for a second, and realized that's probably her," he recalled.

"It was a very faint whistle blast and people had to drop everything and really had to listen hard," marveled SAR leader Michael St. John. "They only heard what Kobe heard, the second or third time around, after getting closer."

Pole joined the Search and Rescue Squad at 14, the youngest age allowed.

He had already had more than a dozen missions before this one, in less than a year.

"I was the little five-year-old who always wanted to be a firefighter or park ranger," Pole admitted. "It's just what I love to do I guess."

Pole was part of a twelve-member Marin team sent on the Fresno County search.

Once at base camp, they were flown 20 miles by helicopter to get to the search area, and were prepared to spend several nights in the back country.

On their second day, Pole and three others rescued Harwood.

"We do a lot of searching, but we don't always do a lot of finding," fellow team member Katie Littman, 18, told KTVU.

She and 16-year-old Madison Grove-Burke shared what they've learned as teen volunteers the past two years.

Like Pole, they are certified in mountain rescue, a more rigorous level of training.

"There's definitely certain searches that you connect with more," said Littman. "And especially when you see families, and their distress, and how scared they are for what could be the loss, or could be the find."

Both young women participated in last year's search for two women who disappeared while hiking on Mount Tamalpais, a week apart.

After days of searching, their bodies were found.

"People think what we do is sad and some searches are really sad," admitted Littman.

Grove-Burke explained how team members turn to each other for support when searches become recoveries, not rescues.

"It also helps if you keep thinking that it's going to help out the family, they will get closure. That helps, and they are so grateful," she observed.

There are also the "finds", like Harwood on Saturday, and closer to home, the little girl lost overnight in a Samuel Taylor State Park last year. She turned up safe.

Searchers can be called out for a variety of reasons: to look for human remains, bullet casings, or a wandering Alzheimer's patient.

When Marin's team heads out-of-county, the youngest members sometimes encounter skeptics, since most units are adults only.

"Sometimes you'll get a question like, 'So, have you been on a big search before?' and you'll be like 'Yes I have!'" Littman acknowledged with a laugh.

No doubt, Miyuki Harwood wasn't concerned with the youthfulness of her rescuer Pole.

"I think it was probably the last thing on her mind at that point," he joked. "She was just happy to see someone."

The longtime head of Marin's SAR unit couldn't be prouder.

"It's just neat that she will recover from this and go on," Michael St. John told KTVU.

St. John joined himself at age 16 in 1979, and went on to a career in the fire service, now a Mill Valley Fire Dept. Battalion Chief.

"When you teach survival skills, you're teaching leadership," St. John explained. "Particularly for a high school age person to participate in something like that, it just opens up a lot of doors."

Kobe Pole is looking forward to becoming a park ranger someday, and seems well on his way.