Cousins rely on faith, intuition to survive cold night in woods
Boys were found three miles southeast of original location
Imagine the panic a parent experiences when their child goes missing.
Such panic was present amongst family members vacationing in Moffat County’s Wilderness Ranch over Labor Day weekend. But rather than holding on to fear, they clung to faith.
“Faith is much stronger than fear,” said Ron Grogan, father of Zach Grogan, 13, who got lost in thick woods Sunday afternoon along with his cousin Cayden Christensen, 9.
The strategy worked, as the boys were found unharmed more than 27 hours after they got lost in the vast forest of Wilderness Ranch, which is located roughly 35 miles northeast of Craig.
“They were out with only t-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes,” Ron said, noting how cold it was that evening, especially after a major hail and rainstorm hit after 3 p.m.
The saga unfolded around 1 p.m. on Sunday after Zach and Cayden left their grandparents’ cabin to go looking for frogs at a nearby pond with their other cousins, Sawyer Hamel, 12, and Finnian Hamel, 9. Their grandparents, Jane and Jerry Hamel, are from Saratoga, Wyoming, and have a vacation cabin in Moffat County.
A few minutes into the excursion, Sawyer started having problems with his asthma and he and Finnian turned back to the cabin. Zach and Cayden continued to the pond.
Eventually, they followed a fence up to where they thought the pond was, only to find that it wasn’t there. They then followed the fence back but got turned around and started heading east away from the cabin, Zach said.
It wasn’t long before Zach realized they were lost.
“They were walking away from the cabin,” Ron said. “He thought they were going west, but they were walking east.”
Suddenly, a massive hail and lightning storm hit, and Cayden found a dry spot under a few trees. The boys tried to stay dry, but after the storm passed their shoes became soaked from all the puddles.
At that point it was getting close to 4 p.m., and the kids’ parents already set out to look for them before the storm started. They then called authorities for help.
“When you get (into the woods), you realize how thick it is,” said Cayden’s mother, Rusti Christensen.
Moffat County Search and Rescue and Moffat County Sheriff’s Office began an official search for the boys at around 7:30 p.m.
Luckily, the children had the Grogan’s two yellow Labradors — Brutus and Beija — with them the whole time, giving them companionship and protection from bears and coyotes, the boys said.
“They were in front of us the whole time, so if there was a person or a bear, they would’ve barked,” Cayden said.
The pair didn’t see a bear, although they know bears lived in the woods.
“There was a lot of bear scat,” Zach said. “There was a lot of coyote scat too.”
The scariest creature they saw on their excursion was a moose, and the two dogs promptly barked before they got to close, Zach said.
As nightfall neared, Zach and Cayden came across a boulder field.
“We were thinking we got to get a shelter built,” Zach said. “The boulder field was slanted. We had the idea to stack a bunch of rocks to block the wind.”
That’s exactly what they did, creating a wall between them and the large boulders.
Shortly after the children made their “Flintstones” shelter, as they call it, they heard a helicopter.
“We kicked the wall down and saw the helicopter crew,” Zach said. “We watched it for 30 minutes. They were about 200 yards from us.”
The helicopter never circled the boulder field, Zach said.
“That was pretty heartbreaking,” he said.
At that point, it was too dark to rebuild the shelter, as many of the rocks had rolled down hill, so they crawled back against the boulders and laid next to each other for warmth.
The boys, their parents, grandparents and fellow cousins who were safe at the cabin didn’t sleep at all that night.
The next morning, Cayden and Zach soaked up the warmth from the morning sun. They saw a camper in the far distance and decided to try to reach it, but they eventually lost their way and never found the camper.
To stay hydrated, they drank from “six different streams,” Zach said.
Neither of them got sick.
“Both of these boys have spent a ton of time in the woods,” Ron said, highlighting that they both hunt, fish and camp, so they’re no stranger to outdoor survival.
Two other aerial searches went out with no success. Search and rescue and the sheriff’s deputies were on foot and horseback looking for the boys, along with dozens of others from the area.
It wasn’t until the fourth attempt by pilots Blain and Adam Tucker that the boys were spotted late Monday afternoon.
Cayden and Zach collected bright hunting tape from trees and waved it in the air as the Tuckers flew by.
“I saw their dogs first, and then when we got closer, they were waving,” Adam said. “I waved at them to let them know we saw them. They looked very relieved and happy.”
They were found three miles southeast of their grandparents’ cabin.
It wasn’t long before the children were back in the arms of their parents.
Zach’s parents, Ron and Amber Grogan, felt that God was with them the whole time. The entire family has strong faith, including the kids, which made getting through the grueling 24-hour period much easier.
Some of the family is from Lander, Wyoming and other is from Pinedale, Wyoming. They made their way back home — all in one piece — Tuesday afternoon.
“I could not have asked for a better result,” said Moffat County Sheriff KC Hume.
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