A teenager who walked out of the woods after 11 days in Great Smokey Mountains National Park came close to eating bugs to survive, but managed to get by on water and a timely rescue, Chief Ranger Steve Kloster told reporters on Wednesday.
Questions still remain about why the teen was in the woods, why his family waited two days to report him missing, and how he got lost in the first place, but for now, everyone is just glad he got out alive.
Austin Bohanan, 18, was found Tuesday afternoon, after having been missing since Aug. 11—he spent 11 days alone in a wooded area of the park, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee.
Kloster says that Bohanan walked into remote backcountry area near Tabcat Creek in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
He had gone into the park with his stepfather, who told rangers they were looking for ginseng, a crime due to laws prohibiting plants and other items being removed from parks.
After getting separated from his stepfather, the teen climbed to top of ridge and tried to twice to call his mom. When the signal could not get through, he spent the night on the ridge, then climbed down and followed what rangers believe was Tabcat Creek upstream, said Kloster.
“In that time, he did indicate that he did hear one of our search helicopters,” said Kloster.
Unfortunately the tree canopy was too thick for the helicopter to see Bohanan.
On his 11th day in the woods, the teen was on another ridge when he saw boaters on a creek down below. Bohanan managed to scramble down the ridge and get the boaters’ attention, and as a result, was returned to civilization.
Kloster said he can remember bigger searches he’s been on, but none that went for so long.
“This search was always an emergency,” he said, thanking volunteers and contributing agencies that helped look for Bohanan in “extremely rough terrain.”
He estimated over 100 people participated in the course of the search.
Kloster said he could not give definitive answers on what the teen was doing in the park. While Bohanan’s stepdad said they were looking for ginseng, Kloster said the teen made it clear to investigators he has never done that before.
“We need to do a lot more work and follow up,” said Kloster.
There is also no explanation for how he got separated from his stepdad.
While the length of time Bohanan spent in the woods without any provisions meant “it was getting down there in survivability,” Kloster said Bohanan was fortunate to have relatively good conditions and the searchers had a very good idea of the areas he would be found in.
“Why I thought he was alive: he was young, he was in shape, there was all kinds of water out there, the weather wasn’t 10 degrees below zero. So if he was in those areas, I felt confident he could still be alive.”
Kloster said Bohanan was reported missing on Aug. 13, after the family looked for him for two days, confident they could find him.
The teen was taken to Blount Memorial Hospital in Maryville, Tennessee, to recover.