When Austin went missing in the Great Smoky Mountains for eleven days, everyone began to fear the worst. But after he reappeared suddenly - in perfect health - people could not believe his story of survival...
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the United States is a forested site rich in biodiversity and natural beauty.
In addition to the plants and animals, it's home to ancient mountains and Southern Appalachian mountain culture, helping it to become the country's most visited National Park. That being said, its dense forests, high altitudes, and heavy fog levels also mean it's a dangerous place to be left alone...
Father & Son
On August 11, 2017, Austin Bohanan and his stepdad Hubert Dyer Jr. set out to visit the Great Smoky Mountains. With their bags packed with all sorts of equipment, they were excited about their big adventure together. After all, nothing bonds a father and son like the great outdoors.
But this duo wasn't like the other hikers who were visiting the trees and wildlife. Their mission was to locate the wild ginseng in the forest. This precious herb was used in energy drinks and medicines. Although it was illegal to extract from the park, its high market value made the risk worthwhile.
And so the search began. Side by side, they climbed through the trees, taking in the area's natural beauty while they walked. For the majority of the time, they looked down at the ground, hoping to catch a glimpse of the lucrative ginseng. Before long, something stopped them in their tracks...
While looking down intensely, Hubert's glasses had fallen off and landed somewhere within the dense bushes. Struggling to see, he immediately notified his stepson, and the two paused their mission in order to find the missing eyewear. Austin knew there was no way they could continue on if they didn't locate the glasses.
Committed to finding the glasses and returning to the all-important ginseng hunt, Austin kept his eyes focused on the ground and allowed himself to get carried away with the search, losing track of where he had walked from and for how long he had been traveling.
At the same time, his stepdad had been doing the same - but in the opposing direction. Hubert had been attempting to trace his steps, going backward, while Austin had unknowingly walked ahead. After some time, the two looked up to realize they were both alone... with no idea of each other's whereabouts.
Alone & Afraid
Hubert did not panic. On the contrary, he was surprisingly calm about his stepson's disappearance, confident he would find him within a matter of minutes. After all, how far could he have realistically traveled? So he called his name out into the echoes of the trees. When no voice replied, he continued to walk and shout out.
Still, Hubert was not too concerned and did not feel it was necessary to call a search party. Informing the rest of the family back home about Austin's disappearance, they were all confident they would be able to find him on their own. Looking back, they would one day realize how blissfully naive they had been at this time.
Alerting the Authorities
Two days had passed since Austin's vanishing, and the family was finally starting to grow concerned. As much as they did not want to admit defeat, they knew in their hearts it was time to call in the authorities. At the end of the day, the police would have access to resources that could elevate the search significantly.
The man in charge of the official search was the Great Smoky Mountains park chief ranger, Steve Kloster. Upon hearing the situation, he was immediately concerned. He knew the park better than anyone else and was fully aware of its dangers. An official search party was instantly called into action...
Race Against Time
Kloster was not messing about, understanding it was a race against the clock if they stood any chance of finding Austin alive. When the men on foot were not coming up with any evidence, the authorities utilized every resource, taking the search to a new level.
In addition to the foot search, helicopters were searching the park from above. With their inbuilt infrared technology, they could scan the 6,700 acres of land. Additionally, police dogs were brought in from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency with the hopes that they would sniff out Austin's whereabouts.
The days were progressing, and things were not looking good. The helicopters and dogs had found no evidence to suggest Austin was alive and well within the forest, and people were beginning to imagine the worst. A plea was made to the public to get involved in the man-hunt.
To everyone's surprise, over 100 volunteers arrived at the park, ready to walk through the forest until Austin was found. It was 90-degree weather, but that did not stop anyone from joining in. The Bohanan family stood by, serving drinks and refreshments to the volunteers.
Hours went by as the volunteers and authorities continued to desperately search for Austin. They called out his name and kept their eyes peeled on the trees above and the ground below. Austin was nowhere to be found, but the authorities were not willing to call it quits. They still had hope of finding him.
As far as they were concerned, Austin had what it took to survive in the Smoky Mountains. "He was young. He was in shape. There were all kinds of water out there," Kloster explained in a press conference. "The weather wasn't, you know, 10 degrees below zero. If he was in those areas, I felt confident he was still alive."
11 Days Later
With each unsuccessful attempt and each dead-end, everyone was starting to worry that Austin might never be found. The days were adding up, and before they knew it, eleven days had passed since the teenager first went missing. Things were not looking good.
"[I cannot] right off the top of my head remember [a search] that went longer than this one did," Steve told the Knoxville News Sentinel in 2017. He was torn up over what to do. As much as he wanted to continue looking for him, he knew the resources might have to be allocated elsewhere...
A Surprising Visit
Just as all the volunteers had started to give up hope and the search was sadly coming to a close, something unexpected occurred. In what could only be described as a miracle, a seemingly healthy Austin reappeared, walking out of the forest alongside a mysterious man...
As soon as the police officer noticed Austin, the good news spread far and wide. People were theorizing about what had happened to the lost teenager and the identity of the man by his side. First things first, the young man needed to reunite with his mother, Brooke, who cried hysterically upon seeing him.
Brooke had been incredibly concerned the entire time Austin had been missing, allowing herself to imagine the worst situations her son might be in. When she finally saw her son, she felt overcome with a sense of relief, rushing to embrace the park ranger Les Kiatkowski for his help.
After a quick medical overview and wellness check at Blount Memorial Hospital, the time had come for the world to hear Austin's story of survival. How had he managed to stay alive all of this time? Where had he been? Who was his apparent savior? There were so many questions, and only Austin held the answers...
Sitting down with ABC News just days after his return, the eighteen-year-old retold the entire saga from his point of view. Slowly, step by step, he explained the events that had led up to his disappearance and the intricate actions he had taken to bring himself to safety.
"I was with my stepdad, and we were hiking up in the mountains and following a trail most of the time," he said. "He was in the middle of the creek and said he'd lost his glasses. [I] was trying to search a little bit. I guess he went on a little bit, trying to find his lenses, and I didn't see him again after that."
Trying Not To Panic
Austin told ABC News that when he realized his stepdad was not in his proximity, he began to signal for him, calling out his name. He listened and looked for some movement in the trees but could not see anything. He tried to call his cell but had no signal in his location.
With his extensive camping experience, Austin knew the best place to find a signal in a forest was on high ground. "I wasn't scared or anything; I just knew that I had been separated, and I needed to do something about it," Bohanan explained. "I wasn't too concerned because I thought I was closer to the road than I was."
Scouting His Surroundings
Using all his remaining strength, the teenager climbed to the top of a ridge to call his mom for help. But each call failed to go through. Talking to the Press after, Austin informed them that he had not heard any helicopters and was entirely unaware people were looking for him.
Figuring he would try again the following day, Austin spent the night there on the elevated ground. When he awoke and was still unable to make a call, he began to create a new plan of survival. Climbing back down, he noticed a stream of water and was relieved to realize he would survive another day.
Key to Survival
When questioned about his brave and strong mindset, the eighteen-year-old told ABC News that he knew how important it was for him to stay calm. "The main thing was just keeping my calm, keep my cool, just keep moving. It's just instinct that came out," he said.
He also mentioned the power of prayer and his belief that it played a part in his mental capacity to continue on. "I prayed literally every night and day, and it helped me drive forward," he recalled to ABC News. While it was clear how he had mentally survived, there was still mystery surrounding his physical survival...
Fasting for Days
To the utter shock of the media and public, Austin revealed that he had not eaten a single piece of food over the course of the eleven days he had been in the forest. He admitted that he had looked along his path for something to eat but had not been able to find anything.
"I did not eat anything," he said before admitting he had come close to eating bugs on two occasions. "I felt hungry the first couple of days, and after that, the hunger just kind of went away because I guess my brain figured it didn't need to send that signal." His primary focus? Returning home.
Noticing a creek at the base of the mountain, Austin recalled to the media how he decided to follow it in hopes of eventually finding human life. After walking for a few days, he couldn't believe his luck when he noticed some kayaks and a boat floating along the water!
"Luckily, I saw a boat, a guy, and his daughter," he said. "[I] waved them down [and] hollered at them, and they were like, 'Hey, I'm coming,' and he asked if I was the one they'd been looking for, and I said, 'Yes sir, I guess so.'" That had been his first human interaction in 11 days.
Upon hearing this young man's tale of survival, the kind stranger was excited to discover it was the missing teenager the whole town had been looking for. Anxious to deliver the good news and bring this boy home to his concerned family, he called the authorities with the update.
The man spoke with the head of the investigation and agreed to escort Austin out of the forested area and towards the base camp of the investigation. At about 2:30 pm, 11 days after he first went missing, Bohanan walked out of the isolated country area near Tabcat Creek - alongside his savior.
Considering the tumultuous journey Austin had been on, the authorities were pleasantly surprised he was in physically good condition. Yes, his entire body was covered in bug bites, and he had acquired a cold - but other than that, nothing seemed too concerning.
After an emotional embrace with his mother and stepdad, Austin reunited with his dad. "I just locked eyes on him, grabbed him, hugged him; both of us started crying," his father, Ryan Bohanan, told ABC. "It was a moment I'll never forget." So what was next for the young survivor?
As soon as Austin's life had returned to normal and he had recovered physically and mentally from the terrifying ordeal, the teenager knew exactly what he wanted to do next. In fact, it was something he had envisioned for his future all the time he had been lost and alone.
Austin enlisted in the United States Marines. While his limited camping experience had helped him in some way to survive the journey, it was then that he realized the importance of these emergency survival skills. He believed there was no better place for him to learn these than the US army.
Someone who can attest to this theory is John Utsey. As a passionate hiker and ex-marine, he found himself applying these army-taught survival skills when he was separated from his young child while hiking the Winsor Trail. This incredible story of strength and perseverance would make headlines.
In his situation, he had called out to his daughter in an attempt to find her and was met by another mysterious voice in return. There was someone else in the forest with them, and he was terrified to find out who. Still, that didn't stop him from doing what was needed and getting the necessary answers.
The beautiful Winsor Trail in New Mexico's Sante Fe National Forest is as picturesque as they come. John and his children had often enjoyed strolling through the long walking path in the mountainous region. Explorers from near and far would meet in this beautiful spot.
The Utsey family did not stray off the path. They always stuck to the tried-and-tested route alongside all the other hikers. They often chose to camp in the designated area there and enjoy activities such as biking and geocaching. They were the ultimate explorers - or so they thought.
Fight or Flight
But on this occasion, in August 2020, it would turn out to be anything but a relaxing experience. John's love for nature and his passion for the outdoors could never have prepared him for what was to come. What started as a fun family excursion soon turned into a life-changing saga.
At the time, John was 47 years old, hiking alongside his 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. When his daughter ran off into the distance and was no longer in his line of vision, he called out to her in the "big command voice" he'd learned in the army.
An Unidentified Voice
"I called her name, and she didn't answer. I [then] called her name really loud, and then I heard her yell back to me from way up," John told Fox 29 WFLX News. "But a couple of seconds later, I heard somebody else answer back from way, way, way off the trail. And I yelled back, you know, 'Are you OK?'"
When the groan-like sound continued, John sensed something was wrong. Believing this mysterious man might be in danger, he decided to follow the sound of the voice. Hiking through unstable and rocky forest ground for around thirty minutes, he finally reached the spot. He couldn't believe what lay before him.
"I Think I Fell"
On the forest ground, there was a man lying weak and hurt. "His face was so gaunt. Like, his cheeks were hollow. His lips were all chapped and kind of bloody and kind of sunburned. He looked like he had severe exposure and had not eaten in a long time," Utsey recalled.
"I asked him, you know, 'What's wrong?' And he said, 'My legs don't work.' And I said, you know, 'What happened?' And he said, 'I think I fell.'" The man, who John believed to be in his 60s, told him he had been stranded there for 20 days at least. All he had to keep him alive was the water from the nearby river.
Calling for Help
John wished he could carry the man to safety there and then, but realistically he knew there was no way he would be able to do so alone. Besides, his young children were by his side, and he would also need to assist them through the bumpy terrain. What could he possibly do?
The ex-marine knew the importance of keeping his cool and began to hatch a plan. Applying his geocaching skills, he noted down the man's GPS coordinates and handed him some food and drink from their supplies. He then climbed back down onto the path with his children and called the police as soon as possible.
Using the provided coordinates, the search and rescue team did what they could to find this stranded man. But after eight hours of searching and coming up empty, they were baffled over what to do next. They reported their failures to John and told him they might need to call off the search.
"I thought it was strange," John recalled on As It Happens. "Like, I figured if they were standing there and he wasn't, then something must have happened," he said. "It was so surreal." As far as he was concerned, there was no way this man was fit enough to climb down on his own.
But John was an army man, so the concept of leaving no man behind was instilled in his brain. "So, I'm laying there [on Saturday night] like, 'This guy is still in the mountains.' So, at 9 o'clock Sunday morning, I get in and put my hiking boots back on and hike back," John shared with KRQE.
It was a difficult journey back through the forest, and John had no idea what he would find upon returning to the spot where he last saw the man. He willed him to be still alive - but the fact that the authorities couldn't find him was concerning. A few hours later, he located him; this time, he wouldn't leave anything to chance.
Attempt With Caution
John waited by the injured man's side and called the rescue team to come and help. Hours later, they finally arrived at the specified location, and this time, John could navigate them to the right place. His low body temperature meant it would be dangerous to move him, so a fire was made to warm him up for transport.
While thankfully, both John and Austin's stories ended the right way, the vast nature of the forest means that this is not always the case. "I heard one of the firefighters describe it as a needle in a haystack. And it really, really is," Utsey told CBC about locating a stranded hiker. Come prepared and stick to the trail...