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Meet the search-and-rescue heroes who save people in Alberta's backcountry in Mountain 911

Martin Presse was fighting for his life, clinging to a rock in the middle of Big Horn River in Alberta, stuck in the turbulent water between the two drops of Crescent Falls. That's when Alberta Search and Rescue showed up.

CBC series Absolutely West explores life in Western Canada

Mountain 911 is now playing on CBC's GEM streaming service. (CBC Gem)

Martin Presse was clinging to a rock in the middle of Big Horn River in Alberta, stuck in the turbulent water between the two drops of Crescent Falls. 

The water, swollen from heavy snow melt, swept him off his feet as he waded in to cool off. He was fighting for his life. 

That's when Doug Ritchie from Alberta Search and Rescue showed up.

Ritchie is just one of the many volunteers with the organization who plucks those in need from rocks, cliffs and woods and is featured in a new CBC documentary, Mountain 911, which first aired on July 12 on CBC Gem.

Presse will never forget the day he met Ritchie, who roped down from a cliff to save him 20 years ago. 

"Yeah it's as if it happened yesterday to be honest with you," he told Daybreak Alberta host Russell Bowers.  

"I think about it every day. When you think you are going to lose your life and you will never see your kids again, you won't see your family, and maybe some of the regrets that you have — those are the kind of things that went through my mind."

I was shaking, I was really struggling.- Martin Presse

Presse said he had been there in the cold water water for almost three hours when Ritchie joined him and asked him if he was OK, in a way that conveyed just how serious the situation was.

"I was shaking, I was really struggling," said Presse. 

"So he was amazing, within a couple minutes I had a toque on and he gave me something to wear and I warmed right up, putting his arm around me."

A nearby helicopter was called in to help and Presse was lifted straight from the rock to safety.

He immediately thought about his young children and the fact he would live to see them again. 

Part of our DNA

Monica Ahlstrom is president of Search & Rescue Alberta. She says wanting to help is, in part, instinct.

"It's part of our DNA. When someone goes missing we go look for them and it's part of human culture since probably the beginning of time. Personally I got into it because I was one of those friends and family originally. I got into it because in 1990, my best friend's little boy wandered away from a campground and he drowned in the creek. Before they knew what happened to him, there was this massive search and it was unorganized and uncoordinated and there was probably 300 to 400 people from this community that showed up to look for that little boy."

Monica Ahlstrom is president of Search & Rescue Alberta. (CBC)

Today, it's more organized.

"We have 35-member teams and we have just over 1,500 volunteers that are spread from one end of the province to the other. There is a high level of training for all our teams."

Ernst Berhmann is a Rocky Mountain House Search & Rescue volunteer of about eight years. (CBC)

A Rocky Mountain House Search & Rescue volunteer of about eight years, Ernst Berhmann, says a rescue can really get the blood flowing.

"Obviously it is actually very gratifying to help people who are really in dire need," he said.

"Once you have experienced that, is for most of us I'm sure, part of the motivation. The other part of the motivation, is that it's pretty exciting."

Margriet Berkhout says she volunteers to make a difference. (CBC)

His partner, Margriet Berkhout, says it's about being part of the solution.

"I guess we both are community driven. We want to do something to help out others. I think most people like to make a difference this is what we do to make a difference."

Lee Friesen says getting out of the way of emergency vehicles is important. (CBC)

Another member of the Rocky Mountain House crew Lee Friesen says there are ways the public can help.

"I think people are desensitized to sirens and lights and emergency vehicles at times. Traffic doesn't always obey emergency vehicles anymore," she said.

Andy Potton of Cochrane Search & Rescue is a trainer. (CBC)

Andy Potton of Cochrane Search & Rescue is a trainer.

"We are field testing a wilderness 48-hour survival course for search and rescue. We just brought everybody out here. Last Sunday we did a three-hour theory. So the reasoning behind the course and basically the curriculum of the course so they could do that, have a week to prepare and then today everybody came out. This is all about taking search and rescue to that next level and really putting people in the field rather than having an evening session where people talk about survival," Potton said.

"If you train to a standard much higher than what is a requirement, then if we do get into that situation we will be significantly better prepared to deal with it."

Bruce Blais has a son that needed rescuing recently. (CBC)

Bruce Blais's son went out on a river to rescue a German tourist that had tipped in a kayak and ended up in the water himself. The two of them made it to the opposite shore but had to wait huddled and shaking for more than an hour before they were rescued. 

"The water was freezing cold. You feel helpless, waiting for someone to come. You don't know what's going to go on. I don't know, the thought of losing my son would destroy my life. You don't want to think that," Blais said.

"We never thought that kayaking in the river, that we could die from that."

Two young men had a close call with their kayaks on a very cold river. (CBC)

And Doug Ritchie was part of the team that picked up the young man.

"Wind and cold cause some issues basically with hypothermia and if people get cold and wet and they get really tired, they get hypothermia very quickly, lose motor function and can't take care of themselves. They can't swim very well, they can't even hang onto a kayak and could easily slip in and drown," Ritchie said.

"It feels good to have a successful recovery, to have them back safely and know they are not injured. It was a pretty nice feeling to have them back safe and sound."

Doug Ritchie says conditions can change quickly in the outdoors. (CBC)

Absolutely West series showcases Western Canada

Many rescues are featured in the Mountain 911 documentary, which looks at the lengths volunteers will go to in order to save the lives of strangers in Alberta's backcountry. 

From rescuing kayakers on Lake Abraham, to a quad rider who broke his spine and ribs. 

It's part of a series called Absolutely West, looking at life in Western Canada.

Ritchie, for his part, shrugged off Presse's suggestion that he was a hero as well as the suggestion from Bowers that there's likely a few people that share the view. 

"It's been enjoyable," he said of his time in search and rescue. "So it's an interesting way to meet people, that's for sure."

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