BASS LAKE, Calif. If you get lost in the foothills of Madera County, Sgt. Chuck Bump will be out looking for you.
If your boat starts sinking on Bass Lake, he’s the one who will lead efforts to save you.
When it comes to rescue missions in this area popular for its recreational attractions, nobody has been closer to the action than Bump, who coordinates the Sheriff’s Department’s lake patrol, dive team and mountain search efforts.
But come June 17 — Bump’s 55th birthday — his leadership responsibility will fall to others. That’s the day Madera County’s top rescue expert begins his retirement.
“It’s hard to just walk away from it,” Bump said last month as the annual boat-licensing process began at the Bass Lake County Government Center.
He’s not exactly walking away. Bump said he’ll stay on as a volunteer on the dive team. He’ll be one of three volunteers who work with eight deputies on a team that, for a couple of weeks yet, he still oversees.
He also oversees the summer Bass Lake boat patrol, with five deputies and four registrars. In search and rescue, Bump will hand over the reins of an operation in which five deputies work with as many as 75 trained volunteers.
Days before the summer boating season began Memorial Day weekend, Bump was busy getting things organized, something he has done since 2003, when he took over the dive team, boat patrol and search-and-rescue operations.
Bump has seen a lot in a few short years. And as Madera County Sheriff John Anderson puts it, Bump has shown “great tenacity.”
The sheriff recalled a successful three-day search in September 2003 for a 75-year-old man who had wandered away from his North Fork home.
It was hot, but searchers led by Bump pressed the search until the man was found alive wedged between granite boulders in a rugged area of the Sierra National Forest near Manzanita Lake. Several agencies’ search teams, about 30 volunteers and a California Highway Patrol helicopter crew participated in this search.
The man had spent two nights outdoors.
That same year, Bump had been involved in another heart-wrenching search, one that did not have a happy ending.
Karen Cornelison, 53, who lived in the foothills near Coarsegold, vanished on a rainy April evening. Freezing temperatures and snow were reported in the nearby mountains.
Search-and-rescue teams from seven counties searched more than a month for the woman, who reportedly had Alzheimer’s disease. Helicopters from several police agencies scanned rural eastern Madera County. Reports that the missing woman had been seen in several communities were checked out.
Specially trained searchers rappelled deep into abandoned mine shafts. The search cost more than $100,000 but yielded no clues.
Then, in November, her remains were found near Palomino Road, less than a mile from her Coarsegold home.
That’s the reality of Bump’s job. In addition to celebrating rescues and lives saved, it included the heartache of body recoveries.
The Cornelison search hurt Bump the most, recalled retired North Central firefighter George Stillman, who now lives in the Madera County mountain community of Cedar Valley.
Stillman, 62, said that because of his emergency expertise, he’s often the one Bump calls first to help manage the searches.
“He’s very dedicated,” Stillman said about Bump.
Bump balances emergency duties with administrative tasks and has won praise for keeping things such as the boat sign-up running smoothly.
Bump’s successor has not yet been named, Madera County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Erica Stuart said.
Last summer, Bump’s crew checked a flotilla of 4,200 boats for state-required fire extinguishers, life jackets for everyone on-board, flotation cushions and warning horns.
One of the early boat registrants, John Tait, doesn’t mind the annual sign-up.
It will be the 60-year-old Tait’s 16th summer on Bass Lake. This year, he moved there permanently from Bakersfield.
Tait applauded Bump for initiating the dry-land sign-up instead of requiring each boater to line up at the Sheriff’s Department dock.
“It’s a great idea by him,” Tait said. “It makes things a lot easier for us.”