Hiking through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, ironically, isn’t what you might call a “walk in the park.” Dense spruce forests, high altitudes, and the blanket of fog that’s often present contribute to several lost hikers every year.
So obviously when a man was separated from his teenage stepson there in 2017, authorities launched a massive search and rescue mission. However, just before a shocking development in the search, park rangers feared they’d have to tell the missing teen hiker’s mother the truth.
On August 11, 2017, Hubert Dyer Jr. and his 18-year-old stepson Austin Bohanan hiked through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But they weren’t there to see lush forests and wildflowers…
No, the duo wanted wild ginseng, an herb found in energy drinks and medicines. Removing it from the park would’ve been illegal, but the plant sold for $600 per pound in certain markets.
But while hiking along a stream, Hubert realized he’d lost his glasses, so he doubled back to find them. Austin, meanwhile, conducted his own search.
As a nearly blind Hubert, pictured with Austin’s mother, left, and Austin, right, both combed the park for the glasses, they wandered further and further away from each other. Before he knew it, Hubert couldn’t find his stepson.
He doubled back for him and called his name, but he just couldn’t find Austin. Hubert refused to admit defeat. In fact, he was so sure he could find Austin on his own that it wasn’t until two days later, on August 13, that Hubert reported his stepson missing.
Tasked with the mission to find Austin, Chief Ranger for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Steve Kloster, below, launched a massive search operation. How massive?
Helicopters equipped with infrared hovered above the 6,700-acre piece of park marked off as the search area. Canine units from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency tracked his scent…
More impressively, 100 volunteers gathered in 90-degree weather and searched the Smoky Mountains. The Bohanan family served snacks and drinks to searchers — a morale booster for sure!
However, Austin proved to be a moving target or at least a well-hidden one. Still, authorities never gave up hope that Austin lived. “He’s young; he’s in shape,” Park Ranger Steve said. And “there’s all kinds of water out there.”
But after 11 days, search parties hadn’t found Austin. Park Ranger Steve, who’d been at the park for nearly 20 years, said he never saw a search that went on so long. Would he have to call off the dogs?
Just before authorities gave up, a miracle happened: Austin walked out of the dense forest, completely unscathed! When word reached his mother Brooke, she broke down into tears.
Overcome with relief, Brooke hugged great Smoky Mountains Ranger Les Kwiatkowski in a picture-perfect moment. But what made this possible? How had Austin survived 11 days on his own?
Once he realized his stepdad was long gone, Austin — an avid camper — went into survival mode: “I wasn’t scared or anything,” he said. “I just knew that I had been separated and I needed to do something about it.”
The teenager climbed to the top of a ridge where he tried three times to call his mother. The calls failed. He spent the night there, and then, in the morning, found a stream.
From there, he said, “the main thing was just keeping my calm, keep my cool, just keep moving. It’s just instinct that came out.” As he wandered, the community held a candlelight vigil.
Over those 11 days, Austin never ate anything (though he admitted he came close to eating a bug once or twice)! “I felt hungry the first couple of days and after that the hunger just kind of went away,” he said.
Eventually, Austin followed a creek that emptied out into a body of water. There, he spotted kayaks and a boat carrying a man and his daughter — the first humans he saw in 11 days!
“[I] waved them down [and] hollered at them,” Austin recalled. The boaters approached, and “asked if I was the one they’d been looking for. I said, ‘Yes sir, I guess so.’”
It was the boater who brought Austin back to civilization, where he gave his father a tearful hug. Even the rescue teams finally took a moment to celebrate his return.
After Austin’s brilliant survival story, he ended up joining the United States Marines! No doubt those skills of his will come in handy there…
It’s incredible what Austin could do all on his own. Not many people could keep their cool in the wilderness like that.
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