Written by Christine Hensleigh
It isn’t every woman that gets inducted into the Explorers Club alongside the likes of Jane Goodall, Margaret Mead, and Ann Bancroft—but Susan Purvis is, in fact, a member of the Explorers Club. She was inducted this year, putting her in the same rare air as explorers such as Sir Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong.
Purvis is the kind of person you want around in a pinch. Maybe it’s because of her knowledge of wilderness medicine, avalanche safety and training top notch search and rescue dogs. She owns an outdoor education business that takes her around the world to teach Sherpa guides, secret service, and cares for crews in Antarctica and Ethiopia. She knows what to do when things go awry in the mountains or in the desert.
Her friends call her a bad ass. Clearly exploration and adventure is her comfort zone. She has been to the world’s hottest, highest and coldest places. It turns out that her latest accomplishment—writing a memoir about one of those adventures—makes the list of the toughest tasks she has achieved.
In 2007, Purvis was living in Colorado and felt called to do something more. Nevermind that she had just climbed to the top of the K-9 search and rescue world with her dog Tasha—a dog she trained to excellence without any prior experience in dog handling. They found victims buried in snow, drowned in water or missing in the woods. The duo spent most of their time recovering ‘the deceased’ as Purvis puts it. It was her way of making sure that no one was left behind. For Purvis, this journey to find the lost or ‘the deceased’ would become a metaphor for finding herself and her own purpose and passion. A way of rescuing herself.
Some women would put their feet up after a successful climb to the top, but not Purvis. That year was also the year she added ‘Write a Memoir’ to her To Do list, going so far as to move from her home town of Colorado to make it happen. She knew that all of the training, adventures and successes of the past few years held far more personal meaning. So, like any go-getting woman would do, she enrolled in her first writer’s conference and got down to the business of putting pen, and her adventures, on paper.
Writing can be tedious, but she found there were similarities to training dogs and writing. They both require tenacity. And tenacity was required as one year of writing turned into three, and three turned into ten years. Having adventures and training dogs, it seemed, was different than weaving those same adventures into a very personal memoir. Yet the process also felt familiar.
“It took years to achieve fluency and create a language of love, trust, a solid bond, with my dog Tasha. I would never have imagined that the writing process would take that long. But it did.” Purvis explained.
If you’ve ever read memoirs, revealing your innermost feelings, secrets and motivations is the key to quality. Memoirs are not for the faint of heart, and after years of making it in the all-boys world of search and rescue, Purvis was used to a challenge.
“The writing process was as, if not more, difficult. Like K-9 training, if you want to be good you practice your craft every day. Just like when I worked with Tasha as a puppy, who had paws the size of quarters, I would teach her to jump up on the dining room chair to simulate a chair lift ride. We would load up in a shopping cart and whip around Wal-Mart to simulate a snowmobile journey and set up scenarios to teach her to track human footprints in the snow. I found a way to train her every day.”
She applied that same daily diligence to her writing. And she found a writing group that she trusted with her writing development and her deepest, darkest confessions.
“I created that same bond with my writing critique group as I had had with Tasha. I had to be able to trust them with my life in order to share and express my vulnerabilities.”
Purvis delves where most of us only fear to tread—both in terms of mountain adventure and in the realm of relationships. The five stages of being lost is unforgettable as a metaphor and the snippets of hard science about how dogs process smell to find humans and avalanche structure mean you walk away with an appreciation of the avalanche search and rescue world.
Purvis doesn’t stop there. Some passages serve up a sharp critique, and summarize the real cost of a male dominated/good ol’ boys search and rescue culture. Purvis pulls no punches, and turns that same incisive gaze to her own life as she details the story of her own crumbling marriage and how she finds herself in the process. This is, after all, a memoir, which means you get all the juicy details.
Because if you ask Purvis, her willingness to share those details, all of them, are what makes the most impact on readers. Judging from an email box that is full of correspondence from people who can relate to that state of being lost, being lost is much more familiar than many care to admit. And so, Purvis has become a kind of guru for those who are lost.
“We can get lost in the woods, but we can get off course and lost in a relationship, in a business, a career, or in our health,” Purvis explained. “It’s okay to wander off the path. Just don’t wander too far away or you’ll end up digging your way out of a big mess or getting completely buried, like I did. GO Find isn’t just a dog command to find the lost and deceased. It is a reminder to all of us to get off the couch and find purpose and passion.”
Putting down her adventures for others to read gave her a renewed purpose and passion. It has also earned her a few accolades along the way. Her latest award, the Nautilus Silver Award which honors ‘books that make a better world’ puts Purvis with the likes of Deepak Chopra, Caroline Myss and Barbara Kingsolver. A great review from the author of A Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger, doesn’t hurt either.
“Don’t let anyone say you’re not good enough or you don’t have the talent. If you don’t know what your destiny is, that’s okay too. Just start walking and soon you’ll be on your path. #GOFIND.” Purvis noted.
Purvis’ next book will be written from her search and rescue dog Tasha’s point of view.
Check out Susan’s website and newsletter at
Susan teaches an annual wilderness medicine course in Lake Tahoe.
For more information www.cboutdoors.com
Readers love Go Find
by Susan Purvis
Your story touched me deeply. Life, as my sweet mom use to say, is “messy”, but it is through that messiness, that we are truly able to find ourselves.
Jane, 56-year-old female
Tears pour down my face as I devour the final pages of Go Find. From the first page to the last, I was immersed in her wintery world. Beyond the fabulous storytelling and incredible adventures, lies a story at the heart of each one of us: What is a life worth living?
Why am I still tiptoeing around people who want to sabotage my professional career? Why have I/am I looking for validation from the wrong people? My career is my Tasha. I’ve made the transition from suppression to prevention. My Tasha is dying and I’m struggling to hang on professionally and to a partnership to what I had and have. Am I in the denial stage?!? Help me.
A 60-year-old male in the emergency responder field
I related on so many levels and topics. I cried for you, for me, for the loss of Tasha and my dog Happy, for our marriages for being told that I never loved you, for laying in my bed under the white duvet, and for the gratitude I have because without all of that I would not feel that same joy to be alive that I feel today.
SW, 50-year-old female
This story first appeared in Ardent for Life Summer 2019 issue.