In bits and pieces, the grass that covers Central Park yielded its secrets: the broken tip of an artificial fingernail. A chicken bone discarded from somebody’s dinner. A twig, a wad of faded paper, the usual potpourri of urban debris.
Yet as the searchers inched forward, carefully combing the ground with picks, they also found what they were looking for: fragments of animal bone, hidden there by instructors. They huddled around the tiny finds, noting their location.
This was only a test run; Saturday afternoon’s outing to Central Park was just training. Soon these volunteers, members of the Bear Clan Patrol and missing persons search group Drag The Red, will be searching in earnest.
When they scour Winnipeg’s riverbank and quiet places this summer, they have to know what to look for. That’s where Saturday’s workshop, led by Brandon University forensic anthropologist Emily Holland, comes in.
"If I can give them just a little bit of training, and it makes their search safer and more effective and more efficient, that’s worth it," Holland said, as she watched the volunteers make their way over the Central Park grass.
It’s the third year Holland has helped train volunteers on how to locate and identify possible human remains. The first year she held the workshop, about 15 people turned out; for last year’s edition, that number grew to about 20.
This time around, the demand was so high that organizers added a second workshop today, to train about 30 volunteers in all. Some are taking the workshop as a refresher; most are learning to search for the very first time.
'It seems a little bit less grim now, simply because of the experiences they've shared, and how this is a good thing that we're doing' — Jesse Jordan
Looking for human remains can be both painstaking, and painful. But if it helps bring a long-hurting family some answers, then these volunteers are ready to face those challenges, and the workshop kept that fact in focus.
"The dead matter," Holland said. "The missing matter, and the people they leave behind matter as well. So this is good work. It’s hard, it’s difficult work, it’s emotionally taxing. But it’s really good work and important to do."
So the day began with Bear Clan’s Darryl Contois talking about what it feels like, to discover human remains. It included an hour-long session in a lab, learning what bone looks like and how it can change with exposure.
It’s not necessarily obvious, to an untrained eye. "Wood looks a lot like bone, and bone can actually look a lot like wood," Holland said. "It changes in the environment, and becomes flaky and kind of striated like dried wood."
(Volunteers are not tasked with differentiating animal bone from human; only forensic experts can make that judgment. Drag the Red searchers often text Holland photos of possible bones they’ve found for her evaluation.)
For searchers, that knowledge can help demystify the fear of what they might find. It’s a heavy thing, to go along trails and riverbanks searching for human remains; but the workshop helped bring that work into a compassionate focus.
"It seems a little bit less grim now, simply because of the experiences they’ve shared, and how this is a good thing that we’re doing," said Jesse Jordan, a first-time Drag the Red volunteer. "It is grim, but it’s very necessary too."
Some of the volunteers at Saturday’s workshop know first-hand, what it is to search for a loved one. Others, such as Jordan and 21-year-old Ashley Solodiuk, were moved to get involved by stories of loss that flash through the news.
Solodiuk joined Bear Clan Patrol in January. She was inspired by the search for Christine Wood, who vanished in Winnipeg on Aug. 19, 2016. It was just two days after Solodiuk’s birthday, and Wood’s story struck a chord.
After Wood’s body was found on the side of a rural road earlier this month, Solodiuk went to a vigil at the site. She decided this summer she would get more involved. She wanted to help other families find answers, too.
"I’m trying to do this not just for myself, but for everybody," Solodiuk said. "It’s one thing to see it on TV, they glam it up. To be here, and be in the mental head space, was definitely a good experience. I’d like to be part of it every year."