One Tiny Detail Changed Everything in the Search for a Boy Missing for 11 Days

One of the scariest situations that can occur for any parent is when a child goes missing. Even those who don’t know the child or family in question can feel sympathy for those involved, fear for the well-being of the lost child, and hope that somehow, someday, the rescue workers and police officers leading the search will be successful and announce some good news.

Austin Bohannon and the search team in the forest

Source: USAtoday.com

Children of all ages can get lost in all kinds of environments, and when 18-year-old Austin Bohannon went missing in the woods, rescue efforts were immediately organized. Right from the start of the search, Park Chief Ranger Steve Kloster felt like this case was a little different from the rest. He’d been involved in searches before and had a feeling that the boy’s step-father was hiding something. It was only after 11 days of searching that the shocking truth eventually came out.

Austin Goes Missing

The story all began with Austin Bohannon, 18, and his step-father. Living out in the Smoky Mountains, the pair spent a lot of time in nature and were used to hiking around in the woods. One day, they both set off on a trip that seemed like any other.

An old cabin in the woods

Source: Flickr

Unfortunately, young Austin had no idea at the time that he was taking the first steps on a dramatic journey that everyone involved with would never forget. The teen was used to the wilderness, but on this occasion, he went missing, and even when dogs and helicopters were sent looking, they just couldn’t find him.

The Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is both a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Set along the ridge of the Great Smoky Mountains, the park stretches out across both North Carolina and Tennessee. It’s actually the most visited national park in all of the United States.

Smoky Mountains Highway. View Of The Smoky Mountains In Tennessee,

Photo By Granger/Shutterstock

More than 11 million people flock to the national park each year, and the Appalachian Trail passes through it too. There are plenty of great hiking trails and nature walks to enjoy throughout the Great Smoky Mountains, and there are several interesting historical sites in the area too, like Cades Cove, a valley filled with old log cabins and barns.

A Hike Like Any Other

Austin could never have known that this hike would turn into such an experience. It seemed just like any other day when he and his step-dad, Hubert, set off into the Smoky Mountains. They’d walked the very same trail several times in the past, after all. Not only that, but there was no rain scheduled for the day, so everything seemed safe and normal.

Austin Bohannon speaks to news crews during a TV interview

Source: Imgur

But Austin and Hubert both knew that the forest could be unforgiving. They knew that in a single instant, you can lose your bearings, forget which way you were headed, or become separated from your hiking partners, so they kept their guard up and stuck together as they enjoyed the hike, side by side.

The Dangers of a Hike

The truth is that even though a hike through the woods might seem perfectly simple and straightforward most of the time, there really is danger out there and a lot of risks for hikers of all ages to worry about. Many people think they’re perfectly safe on a nature walk, but if you accidentally end up off the trail or lose your bearings, a lot can go wrong.

Mist covers the tops of the forest trees

Source: Flickr

Unfortunately, a lot of people forget this simple fact, and it’s possible that Austin and Hubert forgot it that day too. They’d done the same hike so many times in the past, it probably felt just like their own backyard, but on that day, their familiar walk would turn into something terrifying.

A Law-Breaking Mission

So what were Austin and Hubert doing out in the woods that day? Well, they weren’t just enjoying the sights and sounds of nature or getting some healthy exercise. In fact, their hike had illegal intentions! They were actually out in the woods looking for a rare plant named ginseng that could sell for around $600 and was becoming increasingly popular for use in herbal remedies, supplements, and other products.

Sheriff's search through a backpack

Source: Thenews.com

Hubert and Austin knew they could find some ginseng in the national park, but they also knew that taking it was against the law. Still, the lure of money proved too great for them to ignore, and they set off in search of the plant, hoping to make some quick cash.

All About The Ginseng Plant

So why would Austin and Hubert want to risk a hefty fine if they were found stealing ginseng plants from the park? Well, it’s because ginseng is so highly prized by so many people. It comes in two forms: South China ginseng and American ginseng, with the latter being the one found in the Great Smoky Mountains.

A ginseng plant beginning to flower

Source: Flickr

Ginseng has been used in traditional medicine for many centuries, but it’s only in recent years that the wider population has begun to enjoy its effects. These days, we can see ginseng in all kinds of products from fancy herbal teas to dietary supplements designed to boost brain health and more.

The Power of The Ginseng Root

Interestingly, it’s not the actual body of the plant or its flowers that interest people. The only truly useful part of the ginseng plant is its roots. These are said to hold the true power and potential of ginseng to heal people and strengthen their bodies and minds.

A single wild ginseng root

Source: Shutterstock

The root is said to be filled with antioxidants and other positive elements that can be served inside dishes, soups, teas, and even alcoholic beverages, as well as being taken in tablets, health foods, or energy drinks daily by those who wish to enjoy its effects. Positive effects of ginseng include stronger memory, reduced stress levels, reduced signs of menopause, and even a stronger insulin response in patients with diabetes.

A Treasure Hunt

So it seems that Austin and Hubert were actually on something like a treasure hunt that day. It wasn’t just a regular hike; they were looking for a very special plant that could help to make them a lot of money. But would they actually find it? Well, Hubert had been studying the maps and trying to find out where the ginseng was, so they knew that if they stuck together and followed the right path, they had a good chance.

walking in the forest

Photo by: Moritz Wolf/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

It probably all seemed so simple to Hubert and Austin when they first left their home that morning, but as the day wore on, they would begin to realize that their treasure hunt had taken a dramatic and unexpected turn.

It All Started So Well

According to Hubert, when he was quizzed about what had happened later on by park rangers and news crews, the hike started off well. After all, both he and Austin knew the area and had no real reason to be concerned about getting lost.

A man following a hiking trail

Source: pathfindertravels.eu

The weather was dry and clear, the air was fresh, the light was good, and all of the conditions seemed just right for their hike. It seemed like everything was going to go to plan, but little did they know that everything was about to go very bad, very quickly, and it all began when they arrived at a creek.

Hubert’s Side of The Story

Here’s what Hubert said happened when he was later interviewed by park rangers about the whole affair: eventually, after hiking from their home into the forest, he and Austin found themselves walking along the side of a creek. It was a beautiful part of the forest, but it also turned out to be one of the most dangerous areas too.

Austin answers questions in TV interviews

Source: Thenews.com

Unfortunately, the rocks in that area were wet and slippery, and just one mistake from Hubert changed the whole day when he slipped on one of the wet rocks and accidentally knocked his own glasses off his head while trying to steady himself. This just shows how important it is to be careful when hiking near water.

Totally Blind Without His Glasses

Like many people all around the world, Hubert relies on his glasses to help him see properly. In fact, his regular vision is so poor, that if ever his glasses fall off or are taken away from his eyes, he pretty much can’t see a thing. So, after he knocked the glasses off his face, Hubert found himself in a very scary situation!

Lost glasses on the ground of pine forest.

Source: Shutterstock

The whole world turned blurry and unclear, and he knew he needed to find his glasses quickly if he was to continue the hike and find the ginseng plant. He cried out to attract the attention of Austin as he felt the ground around him in vain to try and find his lost glasses.

Austin to the Rescue

Austin hadn’t noticed what had happened at first, but when he heard his step-dad’s cry and turned around, he began to quickly see and understand the situation. He knew that he had to help his step-father find the glasses again. Without them, they’d have to abandon their search for the ginseng, and he’d have to guide Hubert all the way back home.

Summer in Colorado: Looking Upstream at Cascade Falls on Chalk Creek

Source: Shutterstock

Austin was brave, young, and fit, so he was willing to take a risk in the search for Hubert’s spectacles. He assumed that since he couldn’t see the glasses near his step-father’s feet, they must have fallen into the creek, so he jumped right in and started wading around to try and find them. It was a brave act, but also a foolish one as the water had the potential to carry Austin away.

Hubert Dives In Too

Hubert couldn’t see very well, but he understood that Austin had gotten into the water and started to look for his glasses. At the time, the only thing on his mind was finding those glasses so he could see again, and they could continue their hike and search for the precious ginseng plant, so he wasn’t really thinking too clearly.

creek in the forest

Source: Shutterstock

So what did Hubert do next? He waded right out into the water alongside Austin and started searching around himself for the spectacles too. He hoped with every second that passed that either he or Austin would pick up the glasses, and everything would be alright, but it didn’t turn out that way.

The Pair Get Separated

Since Hubert didn’t have his glasses and couldn’t really see anything at the time, his report about what actually happened is a little sketchy. He says that he waded out into the water to join Austin in the search for his glasses, but says he was so focused on trying to find them that he didn’t even notice himself being separated from Austin by the water.

A creek surrounded by trees

Source: Shutterstock

The force of the creek was strong, and even though Austin had managed to control his position, Hubert didn’t even realize that he was slowly being carried away. And by the time he noticed that Austin was no longer by his side, it was already too late.

A Dramatic Turn of Events

It was such a dramatic and sudden change in their day! The step-father and his son had set out that morning feeling calm and confident. They had been following the same trail and walking in the same areas they knew so well, but suddenly, they found themselves in a truly scary situation!

A stream in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Source: Flickr

This just goes to show how quickly a situation can turn around and surprise you. Even when you think you’re totally safe and then everything is fine, the slightest little mistake or accident, which might seem small at first, can have huge and dramatic consequences. Hubert simply slipped on a rock, but that small accident triggered an extraordinary sequence of events for himself and his step-son.

A Lesson for All of Us

What happened to Hubert and Austin is very scary and had the potential to lead to terrible consequences at the time, but it’s also something that we can all learn from. Austin and Hubert were both physically fit and active men who knew the area well and hiked often, but even they fell victim to the dangers of nature, proving that it can happen to anyone.

Steve Kloster answers questions at a press conference

Source: knoxnews.com

Later on, during a press conference regarding the whole affair, Chief Ranger Steve Kloster said, “At some point, they got distance between them and out of sight of each other, and that’s one of the things that we see routinely even with people that are hiking on the trail. It’s imperative for folks — especially if you have small children — to stay within sight of each other.”

What Happened Next?

So what happened next? Well, this is where the story takes a rather interesting and unexpected turn. First, Hubert did what anyone would have done in such a situation. He tried to stay calm once he saw that Austin was missing and then began taking a look around the area. Hubert hoped that if he searched the surrounding area, it hopefully wouldn’t take too long for him to find Austin.

Man crossing river strong current ford

Source: Shutterstock

He called out to the boy too but received no reply, and as time went on, his worry and doubt began to build up. Eventually, he had to head home as it was going to get dark, but the weird part is that he didn’t tell the rangers about what had happened right away!

Hubert Seemed A Little Suspicious

Hubert told the whole story of Austin’s disappearance to the park rangers a couple of days after it all happened. Immediately upon hearing about the story, Park Chief Ranger Steve Kloster felt like something strange was going on. After all, why would a step-father wait so long to report a missing child like that?

Austin speaks to news crews

Source: NBC

The pair had gone walking on August 11, but it wasn’t until August 13 that Hubert actually decided to get in touch with the park rangers. Kloster knew that this was very odd, as most parents and guardians report missing kids straight away out of fear and panic. He suspected Hubert of hiding something but had to focus on the priority of finding Austin, so put together a search party.

A Big Search Begins

Kloster put together a team of 100 people to look for Austin. He also got canine units involved and even several helicopters, all searching across the wooded area for any trace of the missing boy. Unfortunately, they found nothing, and as time passed, Kloster started to worry that the chances of finding Austin alive were decreasing.

A helicopter flies over the forest

Source: Shutterstock

Not only that, but Kloster felt sure that Hubert was hiding something. To try and shed some light on the situation, he went back to the map of the 6,700-acre area and tried to figure out where the boy might be. He also wanted to talk again with Hubert.

Time Keeps On Slipping By

The days kept on passing without any sign of Austin. And if you’ve ever followed the story of any kind of disappearance, you’ll know that the more time goes by, the more worried everyone becomes as the chances of finding the person start to decrease.

A ranger answers a call and watches monitors

Source: YouTube

Usually, if people aren’t found within the first couple of days, many of the experts say that the chance of finding them massively drops in the days that follow. First, Austin was missing for one day, then two, then three, and suddenly, over a whole week had gone by with no trace of the boy, even with all those people, dogs, and helicopters looking out for him.

One Piece of Information Changes It All

Park Chief Ranger Steve Kloster had a feeling all along that Hubert had been lying to him or trying to cover something up. He asked the step-father of Austin to come and speak to him one final time before possibly calling off the search, as Austin had been missing for ten whole days without a single trace of him being found.

Park Chief Ranger Steve Kloster stands beside a map

Source: Pinterest

Kloster knew that time was running out, and Hubert seemed to understand the severity of the situation. Finally, after all that time, Hubert confessed one vital piece of information that totally changed the situation. He was finally ready to tell Chief Kloster the truth about what had happened that day.

The Vital Clue That Changed Everything

This was it. This was the moment when Hubert finally had to confess the reality of what he and Austin had done on that fateful day. He revealed to Ranger Kloster that he and Austin had been out looking for the highly prized ginseng plant.

wild root ginseng with berries

Source: Shutterstock

Hubert had hidden that key piece of information away throughout the search as he was very worried about any legal action or punishment he and Austin might have to deal with because of their illegal activities. But in the end, the love he had for his step-son proved to be strong enough to make him confess to the crime. And with this information, everything was about to change.

A Key Piece of the Puzzle

This piece of information changed everything for Chief Kloster. Before that point, he had no real idea where to direct the search team because Hubert had been so sketchy with his information and never really gave him any clear idea of which part of the park they’d been exploring.

Search team in the forest

Source: Shutterstock

However, once the chief knew about the ginseng, he was able to go back to the map and get in touch with some local park experts to ask them about where ginseng could be found. From there, he was able to mark down on the map the key areas where Austin might be found, completely changing the course of the whole rescue effort.

A Little Piece of Hope

This new discovery about the ginseng really gave everyone a little bit of hope at a time when they drastically needed it. Austin had been missing for ten whole days already, and the chief had been closing to calling off the whole search, but now he knew about the ginseng, he felt like they might be able to find Austin after all.

A park ranger

Source: Imgur

The news really came as a big boost to the chief, who suddenly got a feeling that Austin was still alive out there. He’d feared the worst when Hubert had been acting so strangely and suspiciously, but now that he knew the step-dad hadn’t done anything to harm the boy, he said that the odds were back on their side.

The Longest Search of His Career

Steve Kloster had been working at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park since 1988. He’d been through a lot in his long and storied career, and he’d sadly had to deal with quite a few missing people during that time, as it’s more common than you might think for folks to go missing in national parks.

Austin poses for a photograph in a military outfit

Source: Facebook

However, the search for Austin was something totally new for him. He later revealed that it was the longest search he’d ever been involved in. Many other rangers might have eventually given up after 8 or 9 or even ten days, but Chief Kloster didn’t want to throw in the towel. He was determined to find Austin no matter what.

One Final Effort

In reality, Chief Kloster knew that time was still running out. Even with the big breakthrough of the ginseng plant, he knew that the search couldn’t continue forever. He wanted to never give up on Austin, but he just didn’t have the resources to keep the search effort going on indefinitely.

Source: Imgur

So, gathering together some of his experts and identifying some key areas on the map where Austin might be found, he sent the team out for one last search of the national park. He hoped with all his might that their efforts would turn up with something positive, but he knew that if this final effort proved fruitless, he might have to tell the family that Austin was gone for good.

Austin’s Side of the Story

So, where was Austin during all of this? Was he still alive, after all? Was he out there somewhere, waiting to be rescued? Was he trying to make his way back home? Well, thankfully, the boy was still alive. Austin had been lost out in the park for all that time, doing his best to stay alive.


Source: Facebook

He never even knew that a rescue effort was going on and that so many people were out there looking for him each and every day. Still, he hoped and prayed that somehow, someway, he might be able to find it back to civilization, back to his family, and back to the life he had come so close to losing.

Taking It Day By Day

Can you imagine finding yourself lost in a forest, all alone, with nobody to help you and no supplies to keep you fed and healthy? That’s exactly the kind of situation that young Austin was in. He was totally alone and dependent only on himself to survive. It was all up to him, but luckily, he had a few tricks up his sleeve.

Man hiking at Mingo Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains

Source: Shutterstock

Since Austin had been living out near the wilderness for so long and spent so much time in places like the national park, he’d picked up a few survival tricks over the years. He knew that if he kept calm, acted sensibly, and did the right things, he could keep himself alive and hope that he lasted long enough to get help.

Heading To Higher Ground

One of the main skills Austin had learned from his time in the wilderness with his step-dad was the importance of getting to high ground if ever you get lost. There are two main advantages to this. The first is that, from a high point, you have a better view of your surroundings and can possibly see a town, road, or ranger station in the local area.

A high mountain peak

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The other reason is that, as you get to higher ground, you have a better chance of getting some cellphone signal if you have a phone with you. Austin had his phone in his pocket and knew it was his best chance of getting out of there quickly, so he saw a nearby mountain and started to climb it.

High Ground Doesn’t Help

Austin was very smart and sensible in choosing to head to high ground. His decision made a lot of sense, especially as he had a phone with him and could potentially have been able to phone home, calling either his step-dad or his mom to let them know what had happened and then waiting to be rescued.

A no signal message on a phone

Source: Shutterstock

It seemed like the perfect plan, and he hoped that somehow, he’d be able to get some phone signal once he got higher up. Sadly, even though Austin’s plan was a good one, it didn’t turn out the way he wanted. Even when he reached a very high point, he held up his phone and saw that there was no signal at all.

Time For A New Plan

Since Austin’s plan to get some phone signal and make a call had turned out so badly, it was time for him to accept that he was going to be stuck in that forest for some time before getting out. And so his next priority had to be finding fresh water. People can go for days without eating, but we can’t survive long at all without water to hydrate our bodies.

A group of people hiking in the forest

Source: Flickr

Austin knew this and remembered the creek where he and his step-dad had gotten separated. If he found his way to the source, he could find clean water, so he went all the way back down the mountain and tracked his way along the creek, drinking deeply at the freshwater he found.

Lost In The Woods

Again, Austin was doing the right thing. He made the right decision looking for water to keep himself alive, but the walk up the mountain and then back down along the creek had led to him getting totally lost, and it didn’t take long for him to feel entirely disoriented.

The welcome sign at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Source: national-park.com

Austin had been walking for a few days already and had absolutely no idea where he was. He didn’t know that there was a big search going on all over the park and so many people were trying to find him. All he could do was focus on himself, and he knew that he had to keep moving, even if he didn’t know where he was headed. So he kept walking, hoping to find something or someone to help.

A Moving Target

Chief Kloster later described Austin as a ‘moving target’ because the boy never stayed still in any one place. It actually probably made it harder for the search team to find Austin, but at the same time, it’s understandable that he decided to move around so much. After all, he had no idea if anyone was looking for him and couldn’t know if they’d ever find him.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Laurel Falls

Source: Shutterstock

He thought that the only way he would get out of there alive was by walking out, so he had to keep moving. And even when the weather got all the way up to 90 degrees, Austin stayed on the move, getting through the trees and never getting too far away from the water, so he always had something to drink if he needed it.

A Sign of Hope

There was a point where Austin could have given up hope. He’d spent so long out in the forest, he had no idea where he was, he wasn’t able to eat anything to keep his energy levels up, and he had no idea really if anybody was out there looking for him. Fortunately, something happened to give the young man some hope.

A helicopter passes over a forest

Source: Flickr

One day, while out walking in the forest, he heard the sound of a helicopter overhead! He looked up, but the trees were too dense to actually see the chopper or wave to it. Still, even though he couldn’t catch its attention, he suddenly felt a renewed sense of hope. Now he knew that there was a rescue party, and they were actually getting closer to finding him.

Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures

What would you do if you’d been stuck in the wilderness for ten whole days without any food? Eventually, Austin knew that he had to eat something if he wanted to carry on surviving. His stomach was growling, his head hurt, and his body was in dire need of some form of energy.

Smoky mountains waterfalls

Source: Shutterstock

Plus, since he’d seen the helicopter, he knew that safety might not be too far away. He knew that if he could just stay alive a few more days, there was a chance that he might get home safely. It was at this time that Austin decided he might have to eat some bugs! It sounds gross, but it was the only real option as he didn’t have the energy or skills to hunt for bigger prey and couldn’t find any fruit to eat either.

The Rescue

On the 11th day of being lost in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Austin finally was rescued! The 18-year-old woke up on the top of a ridge on that fateful day and looked down into the creek, where he saw boats floating along with rescue workers looking out for any trace of him.

One of the rescue boat sails along the water

Source: smokymountainnews.com

Austin was so tired and drained after going so long without food and struggling all alone for so much time, but he gathered the last bit of energy in his body to get to his feet and start waving to the boats. Moments later, the rescuers spotted him and helped him aboard. He was finally safe and about to go home to his family!

No Major Injuries

One of the first priorities for the rescue workers after finding Austin was getting him checked over by a doctor. They were all so happy to see him, but they also knew that he’d been out alone in the wilderness for quite a while, and it was certainly possible he’d injured himself or even eaten something poisonous while he was out there.

Austin's mom is pictured crying

Source: Flickr

They rushed him over to the Blount County Memorial Hospital, where he was checked over by a doctor and asked some questions about his time in the woods. Luckily, because Austin had only focused on drinking water, staying safe, and not eating anything along the way, he was more or less in good health but definitely needed to get some food inside him.

A Very Happy Family

Naturally, Austin’s mother and other relatives were absolutely thrilled to hear the news that he’d been found. They’d been hoping and praying for something good to happen for so long, and they were desperate to learn of any kind of positive news, so they were utterly overjoyed when they learned that Austin was safe and alive.

Austin's mom hugs a rescue worker

Source: Flickr

It’s hard to imagine what they’d been going through, but it had to have been one of the most painful and difficult periods of their lives. Fortunately, it had a beautiful ending. “This event has brought our family and friends closer as well as opened my eyes to the unlimited love and caring from our neighbors,” said Austin’s aunt, Carrie.

Never Gave Up Hope

One of the big heroes in the whole story has to be Chief Kloster himself. When interviewed by the press in the moments after Austin was found, the chief was adamant that he always believed the boy would be found. His determination and drive helped the search teams go as far as they did and bring Austin home.

Chief Kloster speaks at a press conference

Rescue workers off Calderwood Highway smile after Austin Bohanan walked out of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Source: thedailytimes.com

The chief said, “We never gave up hope. I was confident that he was in our search area, and I was confident he was alive, and we were going to continue with this until we found Austin.” We can all admire his determination to ensure that this story ended well, and he definitely goes down in history as a true hero.

A Very Happy Ending

Thankfully, the story of the disappearance of this Tennessee teen turned out well. Austin was found, alive and safe, and brought home to his family. His story got the happy ending it deserved, but it could have turned out so differently. Remember that Chief Kloster was so close to calling off the search after Day 10.

Austin poses with his dog

Source: YouTube

It’s only because Hubert finally confessed to the truth about the ginseng plant that the chief was able to adjust the search parameters and send people in the right direction to find Austin after all that time. We’re glad to hear that his story ended well, and we can learn something about the importance of being honest.