The moon was hanging low in the South Carolina sky as Misha Marshall finished loading her pickup. Then she led Gandalf to his cage in the back. It was 3 a.m. on Tuesday, March 20. Misha’s husband, Chuck, came out to see her off. “Don’t expect to go up there and find that lost Boy Scout in the woods, because it’s just not going to happen,” Chuck said. A retired paramedic and firefighter, he had seen more amazing things than a kid surviving three cold nights in the mountains, but he didn’t want his wife to be disappointed in herself or her dog.
Three days earlier, 12-year-old Michael Auberry had vanished from his troop’s campsite in Doughton Park, 7,000 rough acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. A massive search had been launched, but there was barely a trace of the boy.
Misha, a corporate tax manager, and Gandalf, her two-year-old Shiloh Shepherd, had trained for a year with the South Carolina Search and Rescue Dog Association. But this was their first real job, and Misha worried that she’d miss Gandalf’s subtle signs. A search dog doesn’t learn specific signals. He doesn’t act like a pointer spotting quarry. Animal and human work together intuitively.
A mountain girl from Asheville, North Carolina, Misha grew up with working dogs-German shepherds and collies. Even as a child, she could get these no-nonsense animals to do tricks no one in her family could, like make them line up and roll over. She could, she says, “feel like them.”
When she was ten, her little collie, Laddie, ran away. Misha asked herself, If I were a puppy, where would I go? At the end of the block, across the main road, was a goldfish pond. She walked straight to the pond, looking nowhere else. Laddie was there-stuck fast in the mud.
Misha found Gandalf in a kennel in Tennessee when he was six weeks old. A little ball of black fur with oversize feet, he looked more like a bear cub than a puppy. A gentle, laidback bear. Misha, a big fan of J. R.R. Tolkien, named him Gandalf, after the wizard in The Lord of the Rings, because she believed he was special.
After leaving home that March morning, Misha rendezvoused with her team of six other handlers, and they headed north. A sister squad in North Carolina had been searching through the night. Misha’s team would take over later that morning.
Doughton Park is located in a bowl on the side of a mountain. It’s traversed by heavily vegetated, treacherously steep ridges rising 2,400 feet. Rock overhangs look down into caverns snarled with wild rhododendron thickets and deadfall. Slippery moss and waterfall spray threaten footing, and thundering streams could drown out a child’s cry for help.
Knowing how unforgiving the terrain was, park rangers had quickly called in search-and-rescue squads, some working with bloodhounds, from two neighboring counties to scour a 30-mile network of trails.
All they found the first day was some spilled potato chips. The chips were west of Michael’s campsite along a fire road that ran deep into the park. Tactical trackers found footprints leading to another path and then to a stream about a quarter-mile from the camp. It was a fairly good trail, but they lost the tracks at the creek.
As the sun began to set and the chill of an early-spring night set in, someone found the lid of a tin mess kit 100 yards upstream from where the footprints disappeared. A well-meaning but inexperienced volunteer brought the kit back to the base camp, ruining the trail for the bloodhounds.
After nightfall, a state highway patrol helicopter scanned the forest with infrared scopes. Rangers parked their biggest vehicle at the campsite, turned on the flashing lights and blasted Michael’s name over a loudspeaker.
Michael had been wearing an insulated red coat and good boots, but even the searchers were falling into streams and getting wet. They continued through the night.
The next two days, results were much the same. High-angle rescue teams rappelled down cliffs to see if Michael had fallen. Divers dragged the dam at an abandoned fish hatchery with hooks and anchors. They checked logjams on creeks. They looked beneath every waterfall. On Sunday a Boy Scout sock was found in a creek. That was all. Through the night and into Monday, 566 trained rescuers searched the woods.
Misha and her teammates arrived at the staging area around 7 a.m. on Tuesday, day four. It was overrun by media trucks and satellite dishes. There was a huge mobile command center. Red Cross food tents and official vehicles were everywhere.
The team huddled with members of the North Carolina squad, who’d just returned after spending the night combing the ridges. They told Misha that the terrain was so rough, you had to go on your hands and knees much of the time. None of their dogs had found a trail of scent on the ground. Now a dog would have to pick up the missing boy’s scent in the air after four days, a challenging task for even the keenest animal.
The North Carolinians did provide Misha’s team with a bonus. They’d obtained an unwashed T-shirt from Michael’s backpack that hadn’t been touched by anyone else. They had handled it with gloves, carefully cutting it into smaller pieces and sealing them up in plastic bags.
At 8 a.m. the searchers were briefed on every detail about Michael. Misha studied his picture. She wanted to lock his image in her mind, the way Gandalf would lock in his scent.
The base camp command center sent out one dog team at a time to assigned territories. Misha and Gandalfalong with Erin Horn, a nursing student, and Danny Gambill, a volu11teer firefighter-were directed to area 51, one of the steepest.
The three checked the map. Area 51 was an elongated north-to-south rectangle along a trail. The team decided to hike to the top of their zone, then let Gandalf zigzag his way back down. They estimated they had about 70 acres, 1 percent of the park area, to search. A sweep would take them at least eight hours.
It was a mild 50 degrees, but the night before, the mercury had dropped below freezing. Michael had basic Scouting skills, and searchers hoped he’d found shelter. He had read and loved the books Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain, about young boys surviving in the woods alone. But three days had passed now, and the cadaver dogs had been sent for.
Misha concentrated on the search ahead. She didn’t want anything negative to cloud her focus. Michael is alive, she told Gandalf. We’re going to find him.
She took out the bag containing the shred of Michael’s shirt and let Gandalf sniff it. Head up and nose high, the dog started up the trail. Misha, Erin, and Danny followed.
Gandalf fringed the trail, switching from side to side, funneled ever upward by the steep rock walls and sheer drop-offs. Erin was navigating with the map and a GPS device. After about an hour, they stopped and conferred. According to the GPS, they had gone up about 5,900 feet, putting them at the top of their assigned area It was time to turn back and begin their descent. But the team agreed to go up a little higher, just to be sure.
Another 15 minutes or so of climbing couldn’t hurt. It would be good to overlap another search area, they reasoned. They chose a spot about 200 yards away, crossing and recrossing Basin Creek, picking their way over stones and fallen logs.
While Erin was studying the GPS, Danny was scanning his side of the trail. The searchers headed up the right bank of the creek. All of a sudden, Misha saw Gandalf’s head soap up, but she couldn’t spot a thing in the underbrush.
The wind was coming toward them now, around the shoulder of a cliff. Gandalf was about 30 yards ahead, working the bank of the stream where it turned beneath a wall of rock. Misha saw him quickly lift his head again. Was that the sign she’d been waiting for?
Gandalf trotted to the left, out of sight behind the cliff face, and Misha scrambled up the trail behind him. She turned the bend, and there-50 yards up on the ledge, in a direct line ahead of Gandalf-was a boy in a red jacket. He was dazed from hunger and fatigue.
Misha and Danny began yelling, “Michael, is that you? Michael?”
The boy turned silently toward them. Danny clambered up the steep embankment to help Michael down. Working her way halfway across the creek, Misha passed the boy to Erin. The team carried him to the bank and set him down next to Gandalf. “Are you okay with dogs?” Misha asked. He nodded. “Well, this is Gandalf,” she said as the dog nuzzled the boy.
While the rescuers contacted the base camp, Michael ate a few peanut butter crackers they’d given him. He set the rest of the crackers down, and Gandalf snatched them up. “Is a helicopter coming to get me?” Michael asked. ”I’d like a chopper ride.”
The terrain was too rough for a helicopter to land. Rangers came up to carry Michael out. After they arrived, Misha struggled to hold Gandalfback as he tugged at his leash. He wanted to follow the boy. Misha had never seen her gentle giant act this way. He was obviously proud of himself “gloating” is what dog handlers call it. It was the equivalent of an NFL receiver dancing in the end zone.
Michael was dehydrated, hungry, exhausted and freezing. He had firstdegree frostbite, and it would take a couple of weeks for the feeling to return to his toes. After a short stay in the hospital, he was discharged in good health.
As it turned out, Michael’s experience was nothing like his novels. Unlike their protagonists, he had not been lucky enough to find a cave or a fishhook-shaped twig or any other tool that would have helped him. But he had remembered that it was important to stay warm and hydrated. He used leaves as insulation at night, and he sucked on icicles. Michael earned his Wilderness Survival Merit Badge last summer. He now knows the biggest mistakes he made: not staying in one place and not making enough noise to attract attention. He plans to never get lost again. He is grateful to everyone who looked for him, he says, but maybe no one more than Gandalf.
Back at the base camp, Misha finally got a strong enough cell signal to call her husband. “I can’t tell you much right now,” she told him. “But Gandalf has just found that Boy Scout.”
“Yeah, right,” Chuck said. Then he realized she was serious. “Well, I guess that’s the last time I’ll tell you what you and Gandalf can’t do.”