11 Days After This Teen Got Lost In The Mountains, Police Told His Mother The Unthinkable Truth

Without food, water or camping provisions, the teen was at the mercy of nature. He had disappeared into the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains – a daunting Appalachian subrange straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. No one knew if he was dead or alive. And then, on the eleventh day of his disappearance, the authorities contacted his mother with news…

Named after a blanket of fog that often shrouds the range (and resembles plumes of smoke from afar), the Great Smoky Mountains encompass a diversity of natural environments. Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest swathes its highest elevations, the largest such ecosystem in the United States. And at lower elevations, some 187,000 acres of old grove forests constitute the biggest anywhere in the eastern United States.

Home to ancient geological formations, precious flora and fauna, including one of the country’s most dense populations of black bears, the range is protected as part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the most visited park in the United States. In fact, the Great Smokies are so ecologically diverse that they have been declared an International Biosphere Reserve. That said, it is a dangerous place to get lost.

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On June 20, 1962, for example, a six-year-old boy – Dennis Martin – disappeared during a trip to the Great Smokies, never to be seen again. On September 25, 1981, an experienced hiker, 58-year-old Thelma Melton also inexplicably vanished while visiting the park with friends. And on October 8, 1976, student Teresa Gibson went missing while on a school trip.

Austin Bohanan, the teen who disappeared in the Smokies on August 11, 2017, was an 18-year-old camping enthusiast from Blount County, TN – an area of mountains, coves, caves and undulating foothills which extend into the so-called Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians in the north. He lived with his mother and stepfather, Brooke Bohanan and Hubert Dyer, Jr.

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According to Knox News, a local news website published by USA Today, Dyer and Bohanan had allegedly gone to the park to poach wild ginseng – a medicinal root which can cost up to $600 for a single pound on the black market, partly due to its scarcity and over-harvesting in China. The plant takes up to a decade to mature and it is a crime to take it from national parks without a permit.

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While hiking the course of Shop Creek – a forested stream which eventually empties into Chilhowee Lake – Dyer somehow lost his glasses. He then hiked off to search for them, became separated from his stepson, who was also looking for the glasses and lost him. The teen’s stepfather did not report Bohanan missing until August 13 because he believed that the family could locate him themselves.

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The authorities subsequently launched a massive search operation involving over 100 people. “[I cannot] right off the top of my head remember [a search] that went longer than this one did,” Chief Ranger Steve Kloster told Knox News, adding that the Bohanan family had helped the searchers by supplying drinks, food and morale.

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In fact, the search involved numerous agencies including the Backcountry Unit Search and Rescue team, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and the park’s own search and rescue unit. Over a period of eight days, they a scoured a thickly vegetated area of 6,700 acres, deployed canine units and a helicopter with infrared sensors, but failed to find Bohanan.

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Nonetheless, there were good reasons to hope that Bonahan was still alive. For one thing, there was plenty of water in the park. For another, it was the summer, meaning that the teen did not have to contend with sub-zero temperatures. “He was young, he was in shape,” said Kloster to Knox News. “I felt confident that he could still be alive.”

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In fact, after losing contact with his stepfather, Bohanan had ascended a ridge in an apparent attempt to pick up a cell phone signal. However, the calls did not connect. So he slept on the ridge and descended the next day. He then located Tabcat Creek and followed it to its confluence with Panther Creek – a tributary of Abrams Creek, which runs near a campground.

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However, Bohanan followed the creek in the wrong direction. And after a few days, the terrain – punctuated by waterfalls and rugged gorges – became extremely challenging. Bohanan then realized his mistake and turned around. Fortunately, he kept his head throughout the whole ordeal.

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“I wasn’t scared or anything, I just knew that I had been separated and I needed to do something about it,” Bohanan told ABC News. “The main thing was just keep my calm, keep my cool, just keep moving… It’s instinct, I guess, that came out… [And] I prayed literally every night and day and it helped me drive forward.”

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The lost teen had no food to sustain him but after a few days his hunger naturally dissipated. “I did not eat anything,” Bohanan told ABC news. “I felt hungry the first couple of days and after that the hunger just kind of went away because, I guess, my brain figured that it didn’t need to send that signal.”

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At one stage, the search helicopter came tentatively close to finding the teen. In fact, he heard it flying overhead, but the canopy was too thick for him to alert the pilot. Bohanan had no choice but to keep on moving.

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Having been missing for 11 days, Bohanan was tempted to eat insects to survive (he later told ABC News he was “this close”). But on that same day, after sleeping on a high ridge, he looked down at the confluence of Panther and Abrams Creeks and spotted what appeared to be a boat and some kayaks.

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“Luckily I saw a boat, a guy and his daughter,” Bohanan told ABC News. “[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.’”

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Bohanan was subsequently taken to Blount County Memorial Hospital for assessment. A few hours later, he was discharged and reunited with his family. “I just locked eyes on him, grabbed him, hugged him; both of us started crying,” the teen’s father, Rob Bohanan, told ABC News, describing their reunion. “It was a moment I’ll never forget…”

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“I serve an almighty God! Praise be given unto him!” wrote Brooke Bohanan on Facebook after the rescue of her son. Some eight hours earlier, she had shared a prayer. “Please LORD bring our boy back to us some way or another,” she wrote.

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Meanwhile, there is the small matter of alleged ginseng poaching, a crime which carries a penalty of up to six months in jail. “Later on we’ll look at the law enforcement component,” said Kloster to Knox News, “but we’re not there right now.” Indeed, Bohanan’s 11-day ordeal may well have been punishment enough.

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