At 16-years old, Dave Jephson was dogsledding through the Rocky Mountains with two classmates when their sled broke. With no help in sight and the sun at its edge of the horizon, they set up to survive the night.
“We were pushing a dog sled on its side, tilting it so it can catch the snow… there was no adult either for 20 miles away. So it was like ‘Okay, keep going’,” says Jephson. “It was going to be minus 20 degrees here pretty soon, so we needed to stop to make camp. You need to make wood, you need to feed the dogs, you need to build your supplier, you need to have your food and you need to change your footwear.”
Jephson was a student at Saint John’s School of Alberta, a small private boys’ boarding school in Stony Plain, Alta., where he’d often be exposed to lots of outdoor, survival-type activities as part of their curriculum. He was the team captain of his dog sled team as his entire class set out for a five-day trip across the mountains, accompanied by a few teachers.
Later that cold night, their teacher on a snow machine appeared. He discovered the team was keeping warm, and was so impressed with their set-up that he asked for a warm drink before leaving, Jephson says with a laugh.
“It was a different time in the 70s, with the kids and stuff like that,” he says. “I guess it does connect to where I am now.”
At 52, Jephson is the vice-president of Terrace Search and Rescue (SAR), deputy fire chief of the Terrace Fire Department, and the corporate trainer for Dive Rescue International. He’s built a career on his survival expertise and his determination to make the world a better place.
“There’s something out there about doing good… your brain gets a shot of dopamine or whatever it is, and it creates that high,” Jephson says. “I just believe that the things that I do are the right things.”
Over the decades, Jephson has taken part and led hundreds of rescue missions. From running into burning homes as a firefighter, responding to plane crashes, pursuing missing persons’ cases to saving people from situations of dire distress and everything else in between.
But alongside the good, it’s been compromised with some difficulties. He says although they always strive for the best outcomes during emergency calls — not all of them end as a success.
“They want answers, they want something to happen… but people need to understand that a search has to end,” says Jephson. “And sometimes, that result is the loved one not being located… I can give you a dozen locations right now where I know the subjects were never found. And we got to deal with that. We drive by that spot [too].”
He says he’s learned how to manage the emotional hardships of his role and has overcome those barriers, but has to be careful working with younger recruits of his team who haven’t had exposure to tragedy and often struggle with trauma following a rescue call.
Throughout the years, he’s known members who took their own life and who have died during an emergency mission. An important part of his work is leading debriefings afterward and keeping contact with everybody to make sure they don’t feel alone.
“We have things in place to help, it’s very important for us to nurture and train our young members,” he says. “We bring every team in to be part of that and that’s a way to help. It’s difficult, not everybody can deal with it. Life is hard and death has different circumstances.”
Jephson grew up in Terrace but before coming back, he ventured out for a bit. He travelled to New Zealand for a year to work in a small local bar off the grid. There, he realized how meaningful it was to be a part of a community.
“I was friends with everybody, nobody knew my last name because they didn’t care… They had a party for me when I left. Everybody who I met that year was there,” says Jephson. “And I thought I could have never gone back to the city, so that really was that.”
Returning to Canada, he got a job in the fire department in Commando Bay, B.C. where he learned how to tie ropes, fly in helicopters, and run rescues in mines. Along the way, he also completed his diving certifications with specialization in water rescue.
When he decided to move to Terrace, he was told the fire department didn’t take new people. He says he was persistent and convinced the then-fire chief to hire him on, eventually taking a full-time position as a firefighter soon afterward.
“And that was it, that’s where my life changed,” he says. “It’s been an awesome, awesome experience. That was the one side of my life and I always had to keep busy doing other stuff, so at the same time I joined the fire department, I joined search and rescue.”
With 28 years of experience in emergency response, Jephson says he’s currently focused on building up the Search and Rescue headquarters for the Northwest region that’s set to open this summer. As the population numbers grow in the area, so does their team and they require a space for regular training throughout the year to keep up with demands.
He says he hopes people recognize the importance of having SAR in the community, especially if they know someone who has been helped by emergency services. The majority of their organization and building is funded by donations, but Jephson says he appreciates any gesture acknowledging their presence.
“We want that money to flow but whether it’s $1, $5 or $50,000, sometimes what’s more heartwarming and heartfelt is the letter in the card that comes with it,” he says. “I think that just kind of shows the community we’re in.”
Want to donate or know more? Find Terrace SAR on Facebook or email them at terraceSARhall@gmail.com