By Cathy Free(photo: Lori Adamski-Peek)
The sun was peeking over the Wasatch Mountains in Salem, Utah, last June when Kevin Bardsley's phone rang, jarring the morning silence. Up early making preparations for his daughter's wedding in just six days, he quickly picked up the phone.
"Kevin? This is the Summit County Sheriff's Office," said the dispatcher. "Another Scout is missing in the Uintas. Any chance you can get up here?" Bardsley, 47, couldn't believe what he was hearing. Breathing deeply, he sat down.
"Another Scout? I'll be right there," he said. An hour later, he was headed to Utah's remote high country with his friend Gary Hansen, hauling a trailer filled with camping gear and a computer, maps and GPS satellite equipment. During the two-hour drive Bardsley cried, remembering when he'd made the same trip up the winding Mirror Lake Scenic Byway 10 months ago. His 12â€“year old son, Garrett, had been along on that ride. They were both excited about an overnight hike with Garrett's Boy Scout troop.
Now Garrett's body was lost in the Uinta Mountains. He'd taken a wrong turn back to camp to change his shoes after an early-morning fishing trip. Bardsley felt sick when he recalled their last conversation: "Son, are you sure you know where you're going?" "Yes, Dad, I'm sure."
For 11 days, Bardsley searched. Hundreds of volunteers helped, but they found no trace of Garrett. Bardsley couldn't bear to think of another boy meeting the same fate. He'd set up a foundation in Garrett's name to buy GPS tracking equipment, and established a large pool of trained volunteers who could be ready to go out on a search in minutes.
"There has to be a different outcome this time," he told Hansen.
Pulling into the Bear River Scout Campâ€”not 20 miles from where Garrett disappearedâ€”Bardsley hurried to be briefed by Capt. Alan Siddoway Eleven-year-old Brennan Hawkins had taken the wrong path to dinner the night before. He'd been climbing at the camp's rock wall with another Scout.
"Suppertime!" his friend hollered. "I'll meet you there." Brennan removed his climbing harness and raced after him. He never made it the half-mile to the mess tent.
Bardsley remembered the anguish of calling his wife, Heidi, to tell her Garrett was missing. The sleepless nights on the mountain, hating the moon because it meant Garrett was alone in the dark, cold and afraid.
He had the same fears for Brennan. Using satellite maps of the Uintas, Bardsley sent volunteers out in teams to search the dense woods in 500-meter grids. He called everyone he could think of with horses or ATVs. Search-and-rescue workers were convinced that Brennan couldn't have gone far, but Bardsley's own instincts told him it was critical to scour outlying areas too. With another night approaching, there was no time to waste. Bardsley closed his eyes and prayed: "Where are you, Brennan?"
Back at camp, he tearfully embraced Brennan's father, Toby Haw kins. "Go home," Hawkins urged. "You don't need to relive this."
"No," said Bardsley, "this is where I'm meant to be." He suggested Toby and his wife, Jody, call a press conference. Bardsley always wondered if he'd talked to the media on the first day, would more volunteers have turned out? Maybe Garrett would have been found. Hawkins's plea worked: The next morning, Father's Day, 3,000 more volunteers showed up. After just a few hours of sleep, Bardsley sent them out to search new terrain.
Cupping his hands to drink from a creek, Brennan Hawkins was famished and exhausted. He had been lost for three days. He'd tried to eat lamb's ears, a plant he recognized from his Scout training as safe, but the leaves tasted so terrible he spit them out.
When darkness came, Brennan curled up into what he called "midget mode"â€”pulling his sweatshirt down over his knees to stay warm. Fortunately, temperatures had dipped only into the low 50s the past few nights. But the woods were pitch-black, and he was scared. Bears lived in the upper elevationsâ€”though Brennan didn't know that. He'd only seen squirrels so far.
During the day, Brennan prayed for directions. He thought of the PokÃ©mon trading cards he'd ordered with his allowance. They should be arriving any day. "I'm going to get those cards," Brennan told himself. He kept walking.
Back at camp, Kevin Bardsley was preparing to turn over the search to Toby and Jody's extended families. Bardsley knew it was important that they feel in charge. After briefing the sheriff, he drove to Salem to spend a night at home.
"If Brennan isn't found by tomorrow, I'll be back," he promised Toby.
It was 11:30 the next morning when Forrest Nunley, a Salt Lake City painter who'd come up to search on his ATV, drove up a trail by Lily Lake and saw a skinny boy in a muddy sweatshirt standing alone. His sunburned legs were covered with scratches and mosquito bites.
"Are you Brennan Hawkins?" asked Nunley. The boy nodded.
"Boy, am I glad to see you," said Nunley. He gave Brennan a warm shirt, a snack and some water, and then dialed 911.
Brennan had defied logic and, just as Bardsley had considered, ended up much farther away than anyone else expected. He'd walked almost four miles up and over the mountain, instead of trekking the more predictable path downhill, in search of the river or a road.
Rather than rushing back to camp, Bardsley knew where he was neededâ€”home, curled up next to Heidi. "I know my son saved Brennan's life," he says today. "Without the knowledge we gained searching for Garrett, we probably wouldn't have found Brennan."
Says a grateful Toby Hawkins, "Kevin Bardsley put aside his own pain and risked his emotional well-being to be there for us on that mountainâ€”a family he didn't even know."