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Missing camping family found in Perry Canyon

July 3, 2013

PERRY — A family of five campers, who were rescued Wednesday after being lost for two days on a hiking trip, said they were unaware of a wildfire burning out of control just miles away from their position — fire officials thought the hikers may have started in an attempt to summon help.

The lost members of the Cowsert family were located late Wednesday morning in the bottom of Perry Canyon by Box Elder County Search and Rescue and appeared to be in good health, Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Berry said.

David Cowsert, Holly Cowsert and Holly’s daughter Mandy, 12, were retrieved by a search and rescue vehicle, followed closely by an all-terrain vehicle bearing David’s two sons, Andrew, 13, and Nathan, 12. They were reunited with a host of family members awaiting their arrival at the canyon’s mouth.

“It was so amazing,” Andrew said of being found and brought back to safety. “We were so excited, we started screaming and jumping up and down.”

David and Holly Cowsert declined to speak with media after the incident.

The family had intended to spend one night camping outdoors after being dropped off at Perry Reservoir by a family member Monday, Nathan said. They planned to descend through Perry Canyon the following day.

Nathan said they had hiked for some time Tuesday, searching for a cave in the area, when they realized they had become lost.

“It was really kind of scary,” Andrew said. “We didn’t know if we would be able to make it out in time. We ran out of food a few hours before they found us.”

The Cowserts were equipped with military-issued Meals Ready to Eat and water, as well as a tent and sleeping bags, Andrew said.

The group had not returned by its planned 3 p.m. cutoff time, and a family member called to alert search and rescue around 6:45 p.m. Tuesday.

A search was initiated and LifeFlight was called in to do a sweep of the area Tuesday night but was unable to locate any people with its thermal technology.

Another helicopter, equipped with a sophisticated infrared system, was then dispatched by the state Department of Public Safety to continue the search.

Sometime late in the night, Nathan said, one of the helicopters passed directly above the lost family. He said they tried to wave it down with an orange sweater but were unable to gain the attention of those onboard because of the darkness.

At 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, the DPS helicopter crew spotted what appeared to be a recently lighted wildfire near the London Spire in Willard Basin. Near the fire, the crew saw what Box Elder County Sheriff Lynn Yeates described as “three human-shaped figures.”

After the DPS helicopter crew’s discovery, officials speculated the Cowserts may have become disoriented, ending up in the Willard Basin area — to the south of where they intended to hike. Search and rescue officials widened their search to include this area.

By later Wednesday, the fire had grown to cover 1 1/2 acres, said Kathy Jo Pollock, spokeswoman for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. A 20-member Logan Hotshots crew was fighting the fire, working to contain it in a dense, timber-filled area. Pollock said she expected the fire to be contained by 8 p.m. today and to be controlled by Friday evening.

The fire was determined to be human-caused, Pollock said, but the exact cause is still under investigation.

Andrew said he and his family had no knowledge of the nearby fire until they were asked about it by search and rescue officials. Though they did consider starting a fire at times, he said, no members of the group lit any fires.

Nathan said he found comfort in the knowledge that his father, an ex-Marine and experienced camper, was there to keep everyone safe.

“It was difficult,” he said, “but I trust my dad, and I knew he would take us the right way.”

Before being located by search and rescue, Nathan said, the group had to traverse a variety of difficult terrains, including some places with deep mud and a steep hill that required the use of a rope to lower themselves and their equipment to safety.

The Weber Basin and Perry Canyon areas are notoriously difficult in which to perform rescues, Yeates said, because of thick brush and steep inclines — as steep as 18 percent grades in some places, he said.

“It is a pain in the ass,” Yeates said of the area. “You pry yourself through this stuff, you don’t walk through it.”

Upon their rescue, both Nathan and Andrew agreed the one thing they were most relieved to get away from were the bugs.

“The flies and mosquitoes were eating us alive,” Andrew said.

Both boys said they looked forward to a hot shower and a slice of pizza to celebrate their family’s safe return.

The two said they planned take a break from camping for a while.

“We are supposed to go on a 50-miler (hike) with the Scouts,” Andrew said, grinning. “There’s no way we are going on that anymore.”