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Title: Martin,Dennis missing June 14,1969
Description: Tennessee

oldies4mari2004 - August 2, 2006 02:34 AM (GMT)

oldies4mari2004 - November 21, 2006 05:25 AM (GMT)
Dennis Lloyd Martin

Above: Martin, circa 1969

Vital Statistics at Time of Disappearance

Missing Since: June 14, 1969 from The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Classification: Endangered Missing
Date of Birth: June 20, 1962
Age: 6 years old
Height and Weight: 4'0, 55 pounds
Distinguishing Characteristics: Caucasian male. Dark brown hair, brown eyes. Martin's hair is wavy and he has long, thick eyelashes. He was missing one of his upper front teeth at the time he disappeared.
Clothing/Jewelry Description: A red t-shirt, dark green hiking shorts, white socks and black low-cut oxford shoes with a simple heel.
Medical Conditions: At the time of his disappearance, Martin's mental age was about half a year behind his chronological age.

Details of Disappearance

Martin was visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with his father, his grandfather, his older brother and two cousins on June 14, 1969. The family lived in Knoxville, Tennessee at the time. Martin was last seen between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. that day as he played a game of "Hide and Seek" in Spence Field in the park, near the Appalachian Trail. He disappeared behind a bush in the area and has never been seen again. An extensive search of the area did not locate any evidence as to his whereabouts.
Martin was a special education student at the time of his disappearance. His case remains unsolved.

Investigating Agency
If you have any information concerning this case, please contact:
Tennessee Bureau Of Investigation

Source Information
National Search and Rescue School
Smoky Mountain Disappearances: True Stories From The Great Smoky Mountains
By Juanitta Baldwin and Ester Grubb

The book is available through the Web site below:
Unsolved Disappearances in the Great Smoky Mountains

Updated 3 times since October 12, 2004.

Last updated June 15, 2006; details of disappearance updated.

Charley Project Home

monkalup - March 3, 2009 03:58 AM (GMT)

Case of boy lost decades ago in Smokies still a mystery
By BOB HODGE • The Knoxville News Sentinel • March 1, 2009

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Buzz up! KNOXVILLE — It was a simple plan that Dennis Martin, his brother and two other boys hatched.

While five adults watched and talked from a grassy area at Spence Field, the boys decided to see if they could sneak up on the old folks and maybe give them a start. Three of the boys went one direction. Dennis, six days short of his seventh birthday, went another.

A few minutes later the three, which included Dennis' older brother Douglas, jumped on the adults. Dennis was nowhere to be seen.

He hasn't been seen since.

That was June 14, 1969.

What became of Dennis Martin is one of the most enduring mysteries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The search that ensued after his Saturday afternoon disappearance would last until mid-September of 1969 and involve thousands of searchers. Everybody from old-hands who grew up on the land that became the park to National Guard units and Green Berets from Fort Bragg, N.C., spent weeks combing that part of the mountains. The search would include everything from bloodhounds to helicopters, cost $65,000 and not turn up a trace of the boy.

1 of 3 missing
Martin is one of three people — Trenny Lynn Gibson and Thelma Pauline Melton are the others — who went into the park and, as far as anyone knows, never came out.

Gibson disappeared on Oct. 8, 1976, while on a field trip with Bearden High School. The 16-year-old and her classmates were hiking near Andrews Bald and Clingmans Dome. No one on the trip remembered seeing her after 3 p.m. that afternoon.

(2 of 2)

The 58-year-old Melton of Jacksonville, Fla., was hiking near Deep Creek Campground on Sept. 25, 1981, with two friends when she went missing. Melton was familiar with the trail, having hiked it many times before, and was out ahead of her friends when she disappeared.

All three cases involved massive searches that not only failed to turn up the missing persons, they also failed to turn up any suggestion of what may have happened to them.

But the search for Dennis Martin was the most intense and lasted the longest.

At the time of the disappearance his father, Bill, then a Knoxville architect, described Dennis as a "husky, healthy boy" who was not particularly afraid of anything. He had some experience camping and hiking in the mountains with his family and, despite heavy rains the night he disappeared and during the following week, family and searchers hoped he would be found alive.

On June 20 the road to Cades Cove was closed as more than 400 volunteers took to the mountains. If he was found alive a helicopter was standing by to fly him to the Marine Corps Base on Alcoa Highway and from there an ambulance would take him to the University of Tennessee hospital.

The search and hoped-for rescue was getting national attention. Clairvoyant Jeane Dixon, who gained nationwide fame for predicting the assassination of President John Kennedy, told the News Sentinel she "sensed" Martin was still alive. Seven days after he disappeared she told the paper "the boy was still breathing last night."

The only clues that turned up were quickly discounted.

Some boy-sized footprints were found in divergent sections of the search area, but park officials and those involved with the search said the chances of the footprints being Dennis Martin's were remote.

monkalup - March 3, 2009 04:00 AM (GMT)

Ell - June 28, 2009 12:00 PM (GMT)
Search in Smokies for lost boy, Dennis Martin, produces lessons for future searches
By Jim Balloch (Contact)
Sunday, June 28, 2009

KNS Archive

Just six days shy of 7 years old, Dennis Martin was a boy with curly brown hair and a happy smile. The red T-shirt tucked into his green hiking shorts made it easy for the grown-ups in his group to see him run along Spence Field in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His dash from the bright sunlight into the dark brush on the afternoon of June 14, 1969, was the last time Dennis Lloyd Martin - "Denny" to his family and friends - was ever seen.

People lost in the wilderness are not typical missing persons cases. Regardless of the age of the lost person, they prompt a quick search. The search for the Knoxville boy was the most massive in the park's history. But it was marked by errors and hampered by fog and flash floods.

Forty years later, the child's fate remains one of Tennessee's greatest mysteries.

The case still haunts Dwight McCarter, 64, of Townsend, a retired park service ranger who took part in the search. The Dennis Martin case takes up a good portion of "Lost!", his book about searches for lost campers and hikers.

"Children are important to us," he says in his slow, deep mountain drawl. "They tug at our hearts."

A prank that ended in heartache

There are three main theories as to what happened to Dennis Martin.

The first is that he simply got disoriented and perished in the rugged terrain. The other two are that he was attacked by a hungry bear, or taken by a human predator.

But there is no mystery about the happy events before his disappearance. He was on his first overnight camping trip, part of the long Martin family tradition of Father's Day outings in the Smokies. With him were his 9-year-old brother Doug; his father, Knoxville architect Bill Martin, and his grandfather, Clyde Martin. The group spent the night in Russell Field with Dr. Carter Martin of Huntsville, Ala. and his two sons.

The next morning, June 14, the group hiked to Spence Field, where several other Martin family members were gathered.

Around 3 p.m., the grown-ups watched Dennis, Doug and Carter Martin's sons huddle up, look over at them, then split off. The grown-ups knew the children were planning to circle around and startle them, and readied themselves for the prank.

Doug and the Alabama Martin kids went one way. Dennis went in another direction, alone.

When the first three kids sprang, everyone thought Dennis was late, since he was smaller and had a longer route to make the circle. But less than five minutes passed before the adult men in the group split up and began a search.

McCarter, believes that what most likely happened to Dennis is that he got lost, became disoriented and Dennis perished in the wild. But he does not rule out either of the other two theories.

He cites several reasons why the massive search could have missed Dennis or his body.

A 48-inch-tall boy can easily elude detection in rugged mountain terrain, and especially in a rhododendron or laurel thicket. The sound of a roaring creek can prevent a searcher from hearing a child's shouts for help. And in some cases, lost and disoriented children have been known to hide from searchers.

As for an animal attack, McCarter said, "That is possible." Bears normally will not attack humans, but in June 1969, their normal food sources were greatly diminished. And near Spence Field about two weeks before Dennis disappeared, McCarter said, rangers released a "bony, scrawny bear" caught in a wild boar trap baited with corn - something that bears normally do not eat.

The Martin family declined to be interviewed for this story.

They came to believe someone took Dennis, said McCarter, who stayed in touch with the Martins for several years.


Dennis Martin, 6, the son of Knoxville architect William Martin, went missing June 14, 1969 at Spence Field in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Despite the effort of some 1,300 searchers including U.S. Army Green Berets, no trace of the boy was found.
Mysteries of the missing
Today, the News Sentinel begins a series looking at the nature of missing-persons cases as well as specific disappearances that have baffled authorities and families through the decades. Next month: How a network of private citizens, including a very persistent Tennessean, has helped law enforcement put names to some unidentified bodies, solved a few missing-persons cases and paved the way for a new federal approach to missing-persons cases.
The afternoon that Dennis disappeared, Harold Key, 45, of Carthage, Tenn., was near Rowans Creek in the Sea Branch area with his family when he heard an "enormous, sickening scream." A few minutes later, he noticed a rough-looking man moving stealthily in the woods near where he had heard the scream.

"I thought he might have been a moonshiner," Key later told News Sentinel writer Carson Brewer.

Unaware of the search for a lost boy, Key did not report the incident until several days later, after he had returned home and learned of Dennis Martin.

But Key did not recall the exact time this occurred, and part of the time frame he gave included a period that would have made a connection to Dennis Martin's disappearance impossible. Park officials also discounted the likelihood of a connection because of the distance from where Dennis was last seen, and the FBI concluded it did not have sufficient evidence to launch a complete investigation.

As darkness fell on the first day of Dennis' disappearance, thunder and lightning filled the sky, and 2 1/2 inches of rain fell. It rained again June 17. Early in the second week of the search, nearly 3 inches fell.

Each storm would have demolished any new tracks that Dennis might have left after the previous storm.

"The rain washed everything away," said McCarter.

Too much of a good thing

Volunteers helping park rangers in the search included college students, Boy Scouts, hunters, on and off duty firefighters and police, members of 57 rescue squads from four states, and military personnel, including 60 Green Berets diverted from a training mission.

"The thing that stood out to me was what a huge search it was, and the mystery of what happened to the boy," said Gerald Segroves, who covered the story for the Associated Press. Now a retired News Sentinel copy editor, Segroves told of searchers on their hands and knees, looking into brush for the boy.

According to the park's final official report, the number of searchers rose steadily from a few hundred to a peak of 1,400 on June 21. After that, the numbers began dwindling, along with hope that Dennis could be found alive. By the time the search officially ended in September, the searchers had logged 13,420 man hours. Helicopters spent nearly 200 hours in the air.

All of that was too much of a good thing, states an internal Park Service memo written after the search.

As the search began, "Everyone kept feeling that the boy would be found in the next hour, and it was probably this reason why the search organization did not keep pace with the rapid manpower buildup," park Superintendent Keith Neilson wrote. "This search developed so fast that we failed to realize the need for quick organization, from the standpoint of manpower, overhead and public relations."

The large numbers of people would have overlapped or even obliterated new clues or signs of the missing boy.

Michael Patrick

Dwight McCarter, a retired Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranger, worked on the case of Dennis Martin, who went missing at age 6 in 1969.
"There were so many footprints, a mass confusion of footprints," McCarter said.

Several days into the search, two men from Townsend noticed a shoe print near the West Prong of the Pigeon River. It was the size of a child's Oxford type shoe, which Dennis Martin was last seen wearing. McCarter said this lead was not fully followed up because searchers had already been in the area.

McCarter was just 24 years old and still learning from senior rangers and other mentors. Today, he says the two things he most wishes would have happened were massive searches of the area where that print was found and of the Sea Branch area where the scream was heard and the rough-looking man was seen.

Mickey Creager/News Sentinel

William Martin, right, gives park officials an account of the first hours of the search for his son, Dennis Martin, 6, on June 20, 1969 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Pictured are, from left, unidentified, Park Superintendent George Fry and Chief Ranger Lee Sneddon.

McCarter said Sea Branch is downhill of where Dennis was last seen, and it is possible for a physically fit man to carry a small boy between the two points. Perhaps more significantly, Dennis Martin could have reached that location alone.

A few years after Dennis was last seen, a man came across the skeletal remains of a small child in Tremont's Big Hollow. The bones included the skull, and were already being scattered by animals. The man kept the find to himself for years because he had been illegally hunting ginseng and feared he would be prosecuted.

In 1985, he contacted McCarter, who he knew personally, and told him about the skeleton. McCarter and 30 volunteer rescue squadsmen from Swain County, N.C., searched the area but found nothing. By this time, animals would have had more than enough time to destroy the remains.

The area is about 3 to 3 1/2 miles downhill from where Dennis was last seen and in the same direction as the Oxford shoe print found by the West Prong, McCarter said.

It is about 9 miles from where the scream and unkempt man were reported.

About six or seven years ago, a man searching for his birth parents contacted park officials to explore the possibility that he might be Dennis Martin, Park spokesman Bob Miller said.

Miller does not recall what made the man think he might be Dennis Martin. But after a quick comparison of the known facts of the man's life with those of Dennis Martin, Miller said, "We were able to put to rest his suspicions that he was Dennis Martin."

Lessons learned

The size and scope of the Martin search produced many lessons that led to improvements in future searches.

"It's the old adage of it being better to work smarter, not harder," park Deputy Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald said. "We learned that flooding an area with huge numbers of people is not the way to go in all cases, because you tend to lose some valuable clues and good tracking sign."

Authorities also learned how to more efficiently manage searches.

In 1972, in Utah, a loosely knit group of search and rescue workers formed a fledgling organization that became the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), now recognized internationally as a leading conduit for exchanging information and developing new methods. Though it was not a direct outgrowth of the Dennis Martin case, lessons learned from the search for him quickly made their way into NASAR guidelines, McCarter says.

"And that has saved lives, definitely," McCarter said.

Ell - May 2, 2012 02:52 PM (GMT)
3 missing person cases still puzzle park officials
May 02, 2012 12:43 GMT


GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) -- Officials of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park deal with lost visitors every year and most all of them are found.

Three missing person incidents, however, still are unsolved and are known internally as "the big three."

WVLT-TV ( ) reported the disappearances of two children and one adult in different parts of the Smokies in different decades still are puzzling.

Six-year-old Dennis Martin disappeared while playing at his family's campsite in 1969. In 1976, 16-year-old Trennie Gibson was last seen on a field trip with her friends. Polly Melton, who was 51, disappeared from a popular hiking trail in 1981.

Park spokesman Bob Miller says it's likely the woman and the teen were either taken out of the park or left willingly. Officials think the young boy never left.

Ell - May 22, 2014 12:49 PM (GMT)
Dennis Martin Great Smoky Mountains

((WBIR - Great Smoky Mountains) If you ever want to find someone in the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains, retired Park Ranger Dwight McCarter is a solid choice for a tracker to put hot on their trail.

"I was lucky to pick things up from coworkers who were great trackers. With the years of experience, I see things the majority of people don't see at all," said McCarter. "A good tracker knows to look for the white. Always look for white. That bright white leads you to fresh tracks, new breaks in twigs, scuff marks. Things that lead you to people."

From the time he started working at the national park in the 1960s until he retired in the mid-1990s, McCarter became a nationally renowned man-tracker who successfully located fugitives, missing aircraft, and several small children in the Park. He has enough tales to fill a book, which he did when he wrote Lost! A Ranger's Journal of Search and Rescue.

In a chronicle of several success stories, an early chapter in McCarter's career as a novice searcher stands out due to the inability of hundreds of people to track down definitive answers. There was no trace of a missing child, despite the largest search and rescue mission in the history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

"Dennis Martin, on June 14, 1969, disappeared off the face of the earth never to be found," said McCarter. "It sticks with you."

Father's Day Family Tradition

The 1969 search for Dennis Martin is a tale with a beginning and a middle. Yet, the story still has no end even after 45 years.

On Father's Day weekend in 1969, the men of the Martin family from Knoxville went on an annual hiking and camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains. Six-year-old Dennis was just a few days shy of his seventh birthday when he made the trip with his father, grandfather, older brother, and another family who had a couple of young boys.

At around 4:30 in the afternoon on June 14, the group played in the grassy area of Spence Field along the Tennessee and North Carolina state line. The boys huddled up and planned a playful prank on the adults.

"The boys were going to sneak up and scare their family. The three older boys went one way and Dennis went the other way. The plan was for them to jump out of the woods on both sides and scare the adults. The older boys jumped out and everyone laughed and had a lot of fun. Then they asked where was Dennis. When it came time for Dennis to show up and scare the family, he never showed up."

At that point, official reports say it had only been between three to five minutes since the group last saw Dennis. Nonetheless, his father, Knoxville architect Bill Martin, wasted no time and immediately started searching for his son.

"They hollered for him, but couldn't find him. For anyone, it is very easy to get turned around in the thick rhododendron and rugged terrain up there. But especially a little boy," said McCarter. "Another problem at Spence Field is there seems to be an incessant wind that comes out of Tennessee and whips over the mountain. You could blow and whistle up there and the wind drowns it out."

Flood of Searchers Wash Out

Bill Martin hiked the paths in several directions searching for Dennis. The grandfather, Clyde Martin, hiked down to Cades Cove and back. Park Rangers and other people in the park were notified and a search began.

Facebook Photo Gallery: WBIR color film of 1969 Dennis Martin search

As darkness started to fall, so did extremely heavy rain. It came in buckets at the worst possible time. The storm dumped an estimated 2.5 inches of rain on the mountain that night.

"The storm was so vicious, the people there at the shelter had trouble even lighting a fire. You have lightning and thunder and all of this rain. You can imagine the people there in the shelter just imagining what the little boy was going through. That's all you could possibly be thinking. Where was he? Where could he be?"

The following days crews started searching the trails and swollen creeks for any sign of Dennis Martin. Special Forces were in the area performing exercises and were made available to assist the search. The search party now included Green Berets with experience fighting and navigating in the jungles of Vietnam.

"And bless all of the rescue squads and local people who came out. They came from all over and were there to help," said McCarter. "The turnout was great. But you have to use those resources wisely. That was a failing of the Dennis Martin search."

While the initial search lacked clear organization associated with modern searches, the issue was complicated by rain that kept coming in large amounts. Several more inches of rain washed clues away and made roads to muddy to travel by vehicle. Helicopters began transporting search crews from Cades Cove to the mountain top, but foggy and cloudy conditions frequently kept the aircraft grounded.

The manpower on the ground grew to a gargantuan amount of volunteers ready to scour the Smokies for Dennis Martin.

"It went from hundreds of people to where you eventually had 1,400 people saturating the search area. If you've got 1,400 people, they've stomped on everything. It just doesn't work. Every broken branch or 'piece of white' an experienced tracker looks for has been trampled. You've got search dogs that cannot sniff out any clues because there were 1,400 people there. We did searches back then like they were forest fires. You surrounded it and drowned it."

Any clues not washed away by the rain were drowned by the flood of good-hearted people trying their best to help. The search became a classic example of how the road to hell can be paved with good intentions.

The search dragged on. People claiming to have psychic powers started sending messages to the Park and showing up to influence the search.

McCarter said some potentially solid clues were disregarded or lost in the shuffle of speculative leads.

"The two big pieces of evidence I wish they did more with are a boy's footprint and a report from a man that he heard a child scream the day Dennis went missing. Some local guys found a footprint on one side of the mountain of a small boy's Oxford shoe like Dennis was wearing. But there were possibly other children in that same area with some searchers, so it was assumed to be one of the tracks of those children. Then another guy from Carthage, Tennessee, reported hearing a small boy scream in the woods and noticed an 'unkempt' man at the edge of the trees. The FBI said that area where he heard the scream was too far away from where Dennis went missing to possibly get there in that time frame, so they never checked."

People across East Tennessee and the nation desperately searched for what happened to Dennis Martin. How could a young boy wearing a bright red shirt vanish so quickly? How could 1,400 people not find a single trace of him?

Theories ran rampant, but were mostly based on rumors or speculation. Some thought he may have been attacked by an animal. The shorelines from the mountain top to Fontana Lake were searched in case he washed away in the heavy rains. The family offered a reward for their son's return for fear the total disappearance meant Dennis was kidnapped.

There were tons of possible leads, but none of them led to Dennis.

After weeks went by, survival grew unlikely for Dennis if he was still in the Park. With the strong possibility of death in the air, that's where many searchers turned their attention. They searched the air for any decaying odors in the woods. They watched for vultures and buzzards circling overhead. The searchers found lots of small animals, a dog carcass, and a dead bobcat. Still, no sign of Dennis.

The Smokies Bury Secrets

If Dennis Martin perished in the mountains, you might assume his discovery would be inevitable. After all, the disappearance happened in the most-visited national park in the country near the heavily-traveled Appalachian Trail. Over the course of 45 years, surely some sort of remains or piece of clothing would be discovered.

That is not so, according to ecologists with the National Park Service. With each passing season, Mother Nature buries the secrets of the Smokies deeper and deeper beneath a layer of leaf litter and debris that can range from one to three inches in depth every year.

"You have a window of opportunity and it is very short," said McCarter. "For every year, the forest layers up one inch of debris. So this is 45 years? That's 45 inches underneath the earth. We've found missing planes after a few years and there will be no sign of the pilot. A lot of the plane and the pilot will be buried."

The environment in the Great Smoky Mountains full of high heat, humidity, animals, and rich organic material can accelerate decomposition. The thick forest can canopy also makes even large objects such as aircraft difficult to locate.

"We've found planes and walked 10 feet past it several times before we ever see it. The park can really conceal things a lot more than you would ever imagine," said McCarter. "If it takes years to find a plane, think about a small child."

Hindsight leads to life-saving vision

Crews learned a lot of lessons about search and rescue missions the hard way during the failed search for Dennis Martin. Those lessons have been taught ever since the tragedy.

"In the search operations class, on day one what they do is review the Dennis Martin search," said Steve Kloster, the Tennessee District Ranger who coordinates search and rescue missions in the Great Smoky Mountains. "You had people with very good intentions, but you had hundreds and hundreds of people showing up and a lot of them had no training."

The nation placed a big emphasis on training and research to help locate missing people.

"Today we block trails leading to a search area and let people out but do not let new people into the area. The people who go in are smaller groups of expert trackers who have training. Anyone who leaves the area is interviewed and we get their contact information if we have questions," said McCarter.

"There are studies with hard data to show the different risk levels and probability of how someone will behave depending on different circumstances. We know how a missing person frequently behaves depending on age, weather, and emotional state to determine how large an area to focus our search," said Kloster. "On average, we do 100 search and rescue missions a year here in the Smokies. Luckily, we don't have a lot of large scale searches every year."

Kloster said in addition to immediately setting up command posts and organizing searches, another big advancement in search and rescue missions is assigning an individual to communicate with the press.

"We have public information officers who get the critical information and get it out to the public. They get the media the information to let people know what we need and what we don't need. That includes letting people know we have all of the expert resources and trackers we need and for volunteers to avoid going into an area that could compromise a search," said Kloster.

"The training and the organization today is so much better. From the failure of one, you learn how to get better. And I think we get better in life," said McCarter.

Child Comparisons

McCarter is the first to admit he does not know what happened to Dennis Martin. However, he says the lessons learned from the Martin search have helped him successfully save the lives of other missing children. Some of the lost youngsters were boys of a comparable age to Dennis Martin.

McCarter says children can become frightened, injured, and disoriented to the point they instinctively behave in a manner that makes them more difficult to find.

"Children will hide. I remember one case we followed some drag marks because this young boy had hurt his foot. We followed them to this rhododendron thicket. There the little fellow sat, still alive. But he would not move. I can see him and he can see me. You say their name. He would not come out. He would not answer. Why is it that children will not answer? My opinion is because parents and teachers teach children about safety and say 'do not talk to strangers.' The schools are good about teaching children not to be afraid of police or firemen who might be coming in their house in an emergency. But we [park rangers] don't look like firemen. We look like strangers. And boy, kids obey their parents. Someone will try to rescue a child and the kids will run away. If you grab them, they will bite you."

McCarter said the rescuer is able to relieve a great deal of his or her own stress by easing the stress of a rescued child.

"With all of these kids, you're not only the rescuer. You've got to repair anything that happened to this child during this ordeal," said McCarter. "I remember asking one boy to tell me what worried him when he was lost. There were three things and he did not know what these things were. He described a noise of deer snorting at night. Then he described an owl hooting. Then there was a little mouse crawling over his nose at 2:00 in the morning. And I explained each one of those and that none were harming him. I knew those things must have sounded weird and scary because he was from a different part of a country and did not hear those things before. He went away happy. You've got to take the stress off of them and it helps take the stress off of you."

As for what happened to Dennis Martin, the question still has no answer. The story has no ending. But the narrative is clear in the mind of Dwight McCarter. Ultimately, those involved in the search must free themselves of the stress that comes with participating in a search that has become a case study in failure and folly.

"For the searchers and the rangers and the family, it's not your fault. It's not your fault. I've been on a lot of these searches and it's not your fault. It was just circumstance. There are a lot of things that have gone unsolved in our world. You can't take the burden of feeling bad about not finding him. You did the best you could with the resources that you had. It's not your fault."

Life-Saving Tips and Tools of the Trade

A big difference in search and rescue missions today compared to 1969 is obviously the advances in technology. No tool has proven more powerful than the GPS.

"When I first started, we would go out and search an area as a team. Then we would come back and have to look at a topographical map and report where we had searched," said Kloster. "Today we have GPS units that our search teams carry with them. When they get back from the search, we download that information to a computer and can see a clear map of exactly where we have searched and where we have not."

Both Kloster and McCarter say if you are lost and require rescue, you should stay put in the same spot until emergency crews can locate you.

"It's hard to stay in one spot, especially for children. But adults are better at it. I remember one time a lady who was lost in the snow walked around the same tree over and over to stay warm. The path around the tree looked like a caged animal, but she did the right thing," said McCarter.

McCarter says he has personally become enthralled with the development of a device called the SPOT GPS messenger.

"I know one guy who has used the SPOT three times. Now, the thing is you have to buy the device and then pay a subscription fee. But I would absolutely buy it for kids or anyone who does a lot of hiking in remote areas where you don't have any cell service. The gadget has a button you can push that will send an emergency signal with your exact latitude and longitude. The company gets that message and contacts the closest emergency agency to give them your location," said McCarter.

For those unable or unwilling to spend the money on a SPOT GPS unit, McCarter said a roll of cheap toilet paper can also help you rescue crews mark the spot in an emergency.

"If you can get to a clearing, you take that roll of toilet paper and drag a big long white line. Then you drag another big white line and make a big X. If someone is searching for you from the air, they'll see a big white X on the ground," said McCarter. "The other thing you can do is get your watch, set a course in one direction from the X and walk 10 minutes. If you don't find anyone or the trail in that time, turn around and go back to the X. Then do the same thing in another direction. That way you can still be looking for the trail, but not get too far away from the X if someone spots you."

Kloster said toilet paper and other tricks are sometimes useful. However, the most reliable tool essential to survival in almost all situations is a trusty whistle.

"One of the ten essentials when you're hiking is a whistle. Something you can use to make noise. One of the things we are going to do is try to make noise hoping you will answer us," said Kloster.

Most of all, Kloster says hikers and campers should know their physical limitations, plan their trip, and share those plans with others.

"In a lot of cases, our search and rescue missions are for people who are overdue rather than truly missing. They have not shown up at a place they were supposed to be. We can find those people and help them because they did the right thing and filed an itinerary and told someone when and where they would be," said Kloster.

Reporter's note: I spoke to the family of Dennis Martin prior to the broadcast of this story. I thank them for being so gracious, poignant, and polite to a journalist contacting them about a personal family tragedy from so long ago. WBIR fully understands and respects the Martin family's request for continued privacy and their decision to not participate in this story

Ell - January 17, 2015 10:31 PM (GMT)
During his thirty years tracking lost souls through the Smokies and beyond McCarter rescued twenty-six people, many of them children. These days he's still in the mountains, often thinking about those he found—and the few he didn't

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The last lost boy he found was named Phillip Roman. Phillip, who was ten years old, had wandered away from his family while they were at Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smoky Mountains, and as happens more frequently and more suddenly than you could ever imagine, he simply seemed to disappear. This was in the summer of 1994, and Dwight McCarter, who had been a backcountry ranger for almost thirty years and was just about to retire, was called in to track him. Phillip had been lost for three days by then. “I’d been away for the first two,” he tells me. The authorities took McCarter to the Point Last Seen—or PLS, in ranger jargon—and showed him three different tracks. The first set of tracks was a bear. “I knew it was a bear in half a minute, but they wanted me to follow it to be sure, and the farther I did it just got more and more bear.” The second set of tracks was a bear, too. “But the third set of tracks belonged to Phillip,” he says.

Listening to McCarter tell a story is to understand why stories are told: It’s a rush, the sound his sentences make, the voice his words come to me on. It’s better than a book.

“So we set out into North Carolina,” McCarter says. Phillip didn’t know it, of course, but he’d left a clear trail for McCarter to follow, signposts almost. McCarter knew Phillip was right-handed, “and when a limb came to him, he’d break it forward with his right hand. You’d do the same thing. The broken branches pointed to the direction he’d gone.”

They came to a small waterfall and saw that the tracks on the other side of it had changed: One foot was dragging now. “He’d fallen off the waterfall,” McCarter says. “Not enough to kill him but to hurt him pretty bad.”

Phillip could not have gone far up the ridge. McCarter had the men fan out across it, working in a zigzag path up the hill to the top. The plan was to make multiple sweeps, but it didn’t take long for one of the men to holler, “Dwight, over here! Someone’s talking to me from a bush!”

That was Phillip, hiding away in the shadowy green of a rhododendron thicket, the last of twenty-six people Dwight McCarter found.

McCarter is sixty-nine years old now. He has kind, intelligent eyes and a Lincolnesque beard, lightened by gray. He’s thin, sturdy, but not tall, and when he’s telling a story—which is what he does, really, from the moment you meet him until the moment you’re gone—the tenor of his voice sweeps up and down the tonal register, from a baritone to a falsetto twang in the course of a single sentence, or even a two-syllable word. He laughs a lot, the kind of laugh that begs for company and gets it. He is amused by people, history, and nature itself.

He was two years out of the army before becoming a ranger, in 1967. His first job was a seasonal position, manning fire towers. It was a job he loved. During fire season he’d sit in a cane chair on top of the tower and watch for lightning strikes, then he’d map the strike, “run a line out to it,” and they’d check the position out for smoke. But he wasn’t long for the tower. He had skills other rangers didn’t, and still don’t.

McCarter can track a human being.




It’s not hard to get lost in the Smokies. “It’s boys, mostly,” he says. “Young boys. Hardly ever girls. Girls stick close, but boys run ahead, take shortcuts, hide to jump out and scare everybody.” For about a quarter of a century when someone in the Smokies was lost, McCarter was asked to find them. And he generally did, but not always, and not always in time. His domain comprised 521,000 acres and more than 800 miles of trail.

McCarter and I spent a fall day together on the trails surrounding Blackberry Farm, the luxury Smoky Mountain resort where McCarter has worked as a guide, naturalist, and storyteller since 1979. It’s not far from Townsend, Tennessee, where McCarter has lived his entire life. It’s never been a full-time job—he did it on his off days from the National Park Service until he retired from that, in 1994—but McCarter enjoys showing people a world that, even when it’s right in front of them, they can’t see. Me, for instance: We’re hiking lazily down a trail for fifteen minutes before I realize we are tracking a bear.

“There she is,” he says. He kneels, and picks up the smallest of twigs. It’s freshly broken. The toothpick-size twig itself is a slate gray, but where it’s broken is white. A dot of white, no bigger than a bread crumb.

“This is how I find the children,” he says. “I look for the white. This tells me where they went.”

Now I can see it, a shadow in the dark soil: the heel and the claws of a bear. Still looking at the print, he says, “She came down the mountain and stopped here at the trail, looking left and right for danger, for humans, then jumped over the trail. No prints here, see. Big bear, too. Three hundred pounds. Probably came through last night around 3:00 a.m. or so. Coming down the mountain for water, you know. Usually they keep going straight, but here…she angled off. That leaf is bent, there, and you can see the underside of the leaves of that branch over here. She was in a hurry.” He crumbles some of the dirt between his fingers. “Seen this track before. She’s always by herself. No babies. She’ll probably live to about sixteen and die alone. Sad. But maybe she just likes being by herself.” He laughs and suddenly it isn’t that sad anymore. “Or maybe she just has a bad personality.”

McCarter doesn’t just track: He constructs a narrative about what he’s tracking. It’s not just about what happened, but why it happened, and what happened before it happened that made what happened happen. Of course, there’s no way either of us will ever know for sure if he’s right about the bear. But I take his word for it.
Bears are plentiful in the Smokies. They probably won’t kill you, but if you’re lost and die by some other means, after three days or so they will probably eat you. Bears drag their quarry uphill to a ridge and cover it with dirt and dine on it slowly, over the course of a couple of weeks, coming down for water and then returning, until all that’s left of a person are brass shoe eyelets, belt buckles, keys, caps, vertebrae. “Every year that passes without finding the deceased, another inch of soil will cover the remains,” McCarter says. “A man went missing in 1998 and then was found in 2004. Under six inches of earth.”

But sometimes the lost stay lost forever. In 1969 a six-year-old boy named Dennis Martin wandered away from his family and minutes later was gone. It was 4:30 in the afternoon. His family immediately started calling out to him and scouring the woods around where he had last been seen. Nothing. Five hours later a massive storm blew in, and the rain was cold, and the woods were dark, and Dennis was out there in it, wearing a T-shirt and shorts. Over the course of the next three weeks more than a thousand people, including members of the Green Berets, along with Dwight McCarter, searched for the boy. They never found a trace.

When McCarter talks about Dennis Martin, he speaks slowly, he chooses his words carefully, and there’s a ghost in his eyes.

Everything in the forest has a name, and McCarter knows the name of everything. But it’s more than that: He knows the story behind the name. His grandmother taught him a lot of what he knows; the rest he picked up along the way. His recall for names and dates stretching back centuries is astonishing. An hour into the hike he’s touched or pointed at half a dozen plants and told me something like Now, this bush here is called a doghobble. A bear runs right through it, but it has so many limbs a dog’s legs get tangled up in it. This is poison ivy, of course, but look here just three feet away: jewelweed. That’s the cure for poison ivy. When nature hasn’t been messed with, the cause and the cure are usually close together. This big-leafed tree? It’s a kind of magnolia, but I like to call it the Charmin Tree, because the tops of the leaves are so soft and they’ve got quinine in them, you know. So it’s good to keep a leaf or two in your back pocket just in case.

He sees things I don’t see. Somehow he spots a furry orange ant scurrying through the underbrush—a cow killer, he tells me. Crawls in a cow’s ears and kills it. And on we go. It’s spooky, how much he fathoms about the world, everything he understands, how it works and how he makes it work for him. I bet he knows a secret whistle that would bring all the creatures of the forest to his side in a heartbeat. I wouldn’t be surprised.

It’s been a few hours now and we’re back on Blackberry Farm. I’m tired. McCarter pinned a sprig of mint to my baseball cap when we started out—“It keeps the gnats off,” he said—and the mint looks like I feel: wilted. We find a picnic table and eat a box lunch the Farm provided for us. It’s good: a biscuit, chicken, some peas, a cookie. Water. But we’re not there five minutes before I look down and see that a polite line of ants has already found us. They’re crawling through the planks in the table and having their way with my biscuit crumbs.

Like seemingly everything else in the natural world, these ants delight Dwight McCarter.

“See how they’re finding your food?” he says. “They’re following a formic acid trail. When they’re on the trail, it’s easy—they just crawl right to it.” Then he brushes some of the crumbs away and the ants scatter in disarray, as if suddenly blind. We watch them for a few quiet moments. “This is what my grandmother taught me when I was a boy. When I lost something she said, Act like an ant. Circle out from the place you last saw it, looking in wider and wider circles, and then zigzag back in, until you find what you’re looking for. For the ants it’s formic acid; for me, it’s the white.”

Which is how he’d found Phillip: circling out, zigzagging in.

“Hey, Phillip,” McCarter said to the boy that day in July 1994 who was still peering out of the rhododendron. “Are you okay?”

“No,” Phillip said.

Phillip was cold and hungry, and his ankle was torn up. McCarter brought him out of the thicket and heated up a little Tang in the bottom of a cola can for him, and Phillip kept that down but not much more. They sat there for a while and talked. They splinted his ankle. McCarter got his mother and father on the two-way radio, and Phillip told them he was okay. McCarter said, “One of the other rangers is going to carry you out of here, Phillip, and I doubt I’ll ever see you again. So I want to ask you. Do you have any questions as to what happened to you here these last three days? Anything that made you scared? Because we need to get it over with. You don’t want to go back to Florida and live with something that’s going to haunt you for the next fifty years. We need to put a name to it right now.”

The boy nodded. “I have questions,” Phillip said. “Late at night I’d be sleeping in the leaves and hear this rustling sound all around my head, something moving through the leaves. What was that?”

“That’s a deer mouse,” McCarter said. “Loves to come around people, and it gets in your ears and pokes around some, but it won’t harm you, not at all.”

Phillip nodded, taking it in. “And then,” he said, “after it got dark I’d hear these loud sounds, like something breathing, hard, not far away from me.” And Phillip made the sound he thought he’d heard.

“Now, that was a deer, probably,” McCarter said. “They blow at each other sometimes if they’re mad. But it’s just to each other. They never would have harmed you. Anything else?”

Phillip shook his head. “Nope,” he said. “I think that’s it.”

When I was ten years old, I had a prayer framed and hung on the wall above my bed.

From ghoulies and ghosties
To long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night
Good Lord deliver us!

Ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties is exactly what they are until someone like McCarter comes along and gives a name to the unknown, setting you straight. Turns out it’s just mice and a couple of angry deer, and everything’s going to be okay.

McCarter and I watch the ants find the acid trail again, and we sit there like that for a while.

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