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UCSD uses GPS to find lost teen hunter, dog

By Brad Hicks | Erwin Bureau Chief | Johnson City Press
In his spare time, Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley enjoys hunting, so he knows the importance of being able to track down a hunting dog in the event one becomes lost.
But it was a tool that many hunters utilize to track lost dogs that helped officials locate a young hunter who found himself lost in the mountains of Unicoi County over the weekend.
Hensley said a group of boys were hunting raccoons in the Unaka Mountain area on Friday evening when a dog belonging to one of the boys went missing. The sheriff said on Saturday afternoon the hunters returned to the area where they had been hunting the previous evening to attempt to locate the dog.
The dog was wearing a Garmin GPS tracking collar, and one of the hunters, a 15-year-old boy, was tracking the dog’s location with a handheld GPS tracker, Hensley said. The boy, whose name was not released by the sheriff, left the group he was with to try and locate his dog, but did not return to meet the others later as planned, Hensley said.
“They were supposed to meet, is my understanding, and they never did meet,” Hensley said.
Another person in the group became concerned when the boy did not return and contacted the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, which assembled a search team. Hensley said officials were also concerned, as there is no cell phone service in that area and the boy had no radio.
A search crew that included UCSD deputies, members of the Unaka Mountain Search and Rescue Team, Erwin Fire Department officials, volunteers and other hunters set out to search for the boy.
“That is some rugged country,” Hensley said. “There’s some rock cliffs, and we were really concerned about him.”
But it was Hensley’s experience with hunting dogs that led to an idea. The sheriff was able to program the same GPS identification number from the dog’s collar into his own GPS tracking device.
“Of course, me being hunter myself, I had a Garmin tracking device and collars, and I was able to obtain the ID number of the dog the boy had lost,” Hensley said.
The hope was the boy would locate his dog and, by tracking the dog’s position, search crews would find the lost hunter, Hensley said. The sheriff said he set up near the cemetery in the Unaka Springs area and saw on his tracking device that the dog was a little more than a mile up the Nolichucky River on the opposite side of the railroad tracks that run through the area.
The sheriff continued tracking the dog’s location and saw that it was moving down the river at a slow pace. Hensley said the tracking device soon showed the dog was just below a fishing spot known as the Gulf Hole, which is located off the Nolichucky River trail that runs along the Jones Branch Road side of the river. Hensley said the movement of lost dogs is indicated by quick movements on tracking devices but, because the dog was moving slowly, the sheriff believed the boy had located the dog and the two were moving downriver.
“I told (the search crews), I said, ‘I believe he’s with that dog,’ ” Hensley said.
The sheriff gave one of his deputies a tracking collar Hensley has used for his own hunting dogs. With it, he would track the location of the deputy, who was sent in to get to the spot where the dog was tracked, while at the same time keeping an eye on the dog’s location. Hensley said he radioed to the deputy as he approached the dog’s position.
“He started up the river, and I was giving him coordinates over the radio, ‘You’re 300 yards, you’re 200 yards,’ ” Hensley said. “And once he got dead-even with him, I called him on the radio and I said, ‘You’re dead-even with him. He’s to your left about 80 yards.’ ”
Less than five minutes later, the deputy made contact with the hunter who, as hoped, was with his lost dog. Hensley said the hunter had been lost for several hours and was found around 2 a.m. Sunday, but Hensley said the boy was fine.
“We just appreciate everybody coming out and helping,” Hensley said. “It turned out great.”