Text: Emanda Percival
I was recently asked to be a ‘body’ for a training session of the Icelandic Search and Rescue dogs. As a child I was a master of hide and seek, slipping into small spaces and holding back giggles as I watched feet walk past just meters away. So, given the opportunity to test out my hiding skills as an adult, of course I said yes.
One dark Sunday afternoon I, and four other ‘bodies’ arrive at a stable block on the outskirts of town. After a hot meal – bribery by the organizer, Þóra – we are loaded into a car with our yellow waterproof sacks stuffed with sleeping bag, mat and bivy. After a ten-minute drive we’re delivered into the ‘wilds’ that lap the edges of all Icelandic towns.
On one side of the icy, single-lane track are bare, rolling hills. Exposed, the new coating of snow shifts with any puff of air, collecting around wind-bonsai’ed bushes and in dips. In the faded light of 5pm the shadows are bruise blue. Two “bodies” are directed into this exposed area. I am handed to the t-shirt clad police officer, Guðni. He takes me to the other side of the track and up a small slope knitted with pine trees. Guðni wants to test the dogs’ abilities where there isn’t a lot of wind. We hike up the hill looking for a good copse of trees to put me; dressed in thermals, ski pants and two jackets, under.
There are two types of dogs in the training session tonight – trackers, who follow a scent of a person along the ground trail, and air-scent dogs who search for the smell of a human carried by the wind. The second is the dog that needs to find me.
Following the beam of Guðni’s torch I scramble through enough branches to be invisible from the main, snow-strewn path. I am left with the instructions: set up, get cozy, and hide.
Hour 1: I find faces and animals amongst the interwoven branches of pine trees too closely planted to grow easily.
I watch the night get darker then lighter, as it does in Icelandic winters when the clouds and snow ricochet the moonlight between each other, making the world a chiaroscuro painting. A drone sits above me; it’s like being under a metal drill without earplugs.
Hour 2: I’ve slowly slid down the sleeping mat until the only thing between me and the dry, mossy ground is the camouflage bivy. I hear footsteps crunching on snow and see torchlight in the distance, I lay still but they pass quickly. Radio check, three bodies have been found. I reshuffle myself so I’m no longer sliding down the hill.
Hour 3: the tops of the trees are a susurration of needles, bending in a wind that doesn’t touch me. The drone comes back. I wish I could stop seeing the faces in the branches.
Hour 4: I hear running. A light comes down the clear path to my right. I hide my face and try not to giggle. Below me I can just make out a Weimaraner with a blue light on it’s harness. It moves with excitement, back and forth, barks, barks again. That’s body four found. Radio call: “Emanda, are you in amongst a lot of trees?”
Hour 4.5: I’ve stopped actively hiding. I’m sitting up, watching the red and green flashing lights of a black Labrador tracing a square around me. Locating my scent she decreases the space in stages until her nose touches the edge of my bivy. She grabs the orange rubber handle hanging around her neck – the signal she’s found someone - and is gone. This happens so fast it’s disorienting.
30 seconds later she returns with her handler and drops a ball beside me, her black furry face eager to play. The game of fetch rewards the dog, and gives me a few minutes to adjust to being discovered. If I had really been lost, there would not be a big enough word to describe how relieving seeing this furry face would feel. It reminds me, that even as a child, the best part of hide and seek was being found.