For some, there’s nothing better than escaping into the wild for a little while. For 18-year-old Austin and his stepfather, hiking was one of the best ways they spent their time together. However, that all changed when Austin became lost in the woods. Things seemed strange when the stepfather didn’t report him missing right away. As it turns out, there was a reason he wanted to keep things quiet. Read on to discover what they were really doing in the forest, and how authorities managed to find Austin almost two weeks later.
A Love For The Great Outdoors
It’s not always easy for a stepfather and his stepson to bond over a common hobby. Lucky for eighteen-year-old Austin, he and his stepfather both loved spending time outdoors. The two would frequent the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee since it wasn’t far from their home.
They hiked together often, so the nearby trails had become familiar to both. Despite being experienced outdoorsman, things can sometimes go unexpectedly wrong. That’s exactly what happened next.
A Missing Pair Of Glasses
One particular day, Austin and his stepfather were walking through one of their typical hiking paths. The day seemed insignificant until his stepfather tripped near a creek, causing his glasses to fly from his face and into the water.
Austin’s stepfather struggled to see where his glasses went, not only because they were lost in the stream, but because he couldn’t see well without them. Since Austin knew that his stepfather would need help finding them, he began searching for the missing pair of glasses.
Gone In Plain Sight
Austin and his stepfather did what most people do when looking for something: they picked opposite directions and starting searching. Unfortunately, this meant that the two became separated from one another and they went on looking for the glasses.
Since his stepdad was having a hard time seeing, he couldn’t tell when Austin had strayed far away from him. He continued looking for his glasses until, at last, he found them in the stream. It was then that he realized his stepson had vanished.
No One Answered His Calls
All the while, Austin’s stepfather had assumed the young man was still in short distance. Now that his glasses were back on, he could see that Austin was nowhere in sight.
He began shouting Austin’s name, but no one answered back. By now, panic set in. He decided to do the most logical thing he could think of and go back to the car. He figured that Austin would do the same so long as he knew the way back well enough.
No Austin In Sight
Austin and his stepfather could have wasted hours circling around the forest in search of one another. For all they knew, they could be moving away from one another as they looked.
The most logical thing to do was to return to the car, the one place that they both knew where exactly to go. Surely a grown man would have come to this conclusion and gone there, too. Unfortunately, Austin never returned to the car.
Something Seemed Fishy
The stepfather returned home and told Austin’s mother. The two figured that since Austin is grown and knows the trails, he would eventually make it back or get to a phone and call them.
They eventually headed back to the trail to look for Austin but were unsuccessful. Two days later, they reported him missing. Park Chief Ranger Steve Kloster received the phone call and was shocked that it had already been 48 hours and no one said anything. Something seemed off.
Let The Search Begin
Austin was officially declared missing at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, August 13th. Park Ranger Steve Kloster set up a search and rescue that consisted of 100 people. They covered 6,700 acres with helicopters, ground crews, and search canines.
Since it had already been two days, it seemed unlikely that he would still be in the woods. If Austin were little he may have gotten scared and hid somewhere, but he was old enough to make it out on his own.
Kloster Was Not Giving Up
The search ended unsuccessfully. Not so much as a clue was uncovered. Nevertheless, Kloster knew that there was enough water for Austin to survive off of and that he was in good enough shape to survive a few days alone.
On top of all of that, the weather was decent. It was neither sweltering hot or freezing cold. As far as they were concerned, the young man was making it through okay. As it turns out, he was having a harder time than they could have known.
The Stepfather Was Holding Something Back
Kloster was familiar with similar cases of missing people. He knew by the tenth day that things were not looking good for Austin, who presumably had not eaten all of this time. Desperate times had finally called for desperate measures.
One thing that the park ranger was suspicious of was the stepfather. First, he didn’t report the case right away, and then later he’d seemed vague about the location the men had been separated at. He decided to sit the stepfather down for a talk.
It Was Time To Reveal His Secret
Hubert, Austin’s stepfather, had been leery to confess the real reason that he and Austin went out for a hike that day. Kloster sat him down and demanded that he release all of the information he had before it was too late.
The problem was that they had been doing something illegal. However, the petty crime was not worth getting away with if it meant losing Austin. At last, it had gotten to a point where the truth needed to come out.
Meanwhile, Austin Was Using All Of His Survival Skills
Like his stepfather, it took Austin a moment to realize that the two had lost one another. Fortunately, the authorities and his parents were right about one thing: Austin was well equipped to handle being alone in the forest.
All of his years hiking trails and becoming comfortable and familiar with the great outdoors had lead to this moment. The first step in any situation like this was to remain calm. Rather than getting scared and losing focus, Austin zeroed in on what he needed to do.
Step 1: Get To Higher Ground
While his stepfather’s instincts lead him to return to the car, Austin had another plan. Since he didn’t know for sure if his stepfather had found his glasses, he couldn’t be sure that Hubert had made it back to the car without proper vision.
Rather than taking the chance, he decided to get to higher ground where he could hopefully make a phone call and clear things up. He climbed to the top of a ridge and made the calls.
Step 2: Follow The Water
Despite being up high, the calls didn’t go through. By then it was already late and Austin was exhausted from the day’s events. He camped out on the ridge and then the following day he headed back to lower ground.
As he trekked on he came upon a creek. Austin knew that it would be a good idea to stay near the water. It provided him with something to drink, but also gave him a sense of direction.
Step 3: Turn Around
The small creek he had run into was Tabcat Creek and led him straight into a large creek called Panther. He followed Panther Creek for a couple of days. Without food, he only grew weaker with each passing day.
What’s worse is that the path was not an easy one. The hike was full of steep areas and parts that required climbing a hill to get around a waterfall. Then Austin realized he’d been going the wrong way! He turned around and headed in the opposite direction.
Flagging Down The Helicopter
Being lost is never fun, especially when you can’t tell if someone is looking for you. Austin could have expected that his family would be looking for him, but there was no way to know if the authorities were on their way, or if they would ever find him.
A spark of hope finally came one day as Austin was walking along the forest. He spotted a helicopter and tried to flag it down. The tree canopies were too tall and thick for the young man to stand out against, so he went unseen.
Sticking To The Plan
While Austin knew that people were searching the woods for him, he had to stick to his plan and stay on a steady course. Just like when he first got separated from his stepfather, he couldn’t wander into the woods looking for those who might be looking for him.
If he did so, he would easily get lost in all of the trees without clear landmarks. He could start walking in circles without realizing it. He had to stay near the stream.
The One Thing He Could Eat
Austin was burning hundreds of calories a day by continuing to hike. Especially with the rough terrain, he had to engage muscles that had no fuel to run on. That’s what lead him to nearly eating bugs.
However, his body adjusted very quickly to the challenge. After a few days without food, he no longer was feeling pangs of hunger. Staying focused and in control forced his body to adapt to what was happening. He went into survival mode.
The Hidden Truth
Back at Austin’s house, his stepfather was finally ready to reveal the detail he hadn’t been too proud to share. He admitted to the reason that he and Austin had gone out hiking in the first place.
They were looking for ginseng. The plant’s roots can be worth hundreds of dollars per pound. However, it’s illegal to remove the plant or any part of it from the forest. Suddenly everything that had happened seemed crystal clear.
The park ranger had been right to question why Hubert would hold off contacting the authorities about his stepson for two days. It’s possible that he resisted their help because he didn’t want to get them both into trouble.
Austin’s stepfather may have thought that he could find him on his own and save everyone the trouble of revealing their potentially illegal activity. However, those 48 hours that he waited enabled Austin to stray further into the woods.
Waking Up From A Nightmare
By the eleventh day of being lost, Austin’s body was depleted. He had managed to avoid eating bugs but was still in desperate need of food. He’d relied on untreated creek water, which was good for the time being but was not what his body was used to.
He woke up on a ridge where he once again slept and looked down at the water below. It was then that he saw it. At last, his nightmare would be over.
Saved At Last
On the morning of August 22nd, boaters went drifting down Abrams Creek. Austin opened his eyes to wake up just as the rafts drifted by. The entire time that he’d been missing, groups of 15 to 30 people were looking for him at once.
However, these boaters were the first humans Austin had seen since his stepfather. It was incredible timing that he caught a glimpse of them the moment he woke up thanks to his spot on the ridge. He managed to get their attention.
The Searching Only Grew
After Hubert’s confession, everyone on the lookout had a clear idea of where he and Austin had been and what to look out for. By the eleventh day of searching, two teams of trained canines and almost thirty emergency responders from five different agencies were on the scene.
One park worker by the name of Sanders told the local newspaper that the challenging terrain meant an hour-long walk could take as much as a full day to get through.
Everyone Put In Effort
No one lost hope since they all knew that this was something Austin could survive. However, they also knew that he was in an area they had been mining through for more than a week.
Seven days after Austin first went missing, his local community held a candlelight vigil for him. From churches to hunters to investigators and more, everyone came together to find Austin since they knew that it was in their power to do so.
Reunited At Last
With all of the news gathered about the missing boy in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it was clear the moment the boaters spotted him that this was Austin.
Austin’s mother was emotional as she got the news that her son was found. He was immediately cared for and brought back to a stable level, but was in impressive shape given all he’d been through. Austin went on to put his survival skills to use as a Marine.
A Lesson Learned
In 29 years with the park, Kloster told local reporters that he’d never seen a search last so long. Sanders said that losing sight of one another was a common reason hiking partners get lost, emphasizing the importance of staying close together.
The positive that came out of the ordeal was that the community came together for a joined purpose: bringing Austin home. His mother posted on Facebook that the compassion of strangers “was beyond moving.”