McGRADY, N.C. – A 12-year-old Boy Scout who survived in the North Carolina mountains for four days scarfed down chicken fingers after being reunited with his overjoyed parents and explained that he wandered away from his troop because he missed his family.
"He was homesick," said Kent Auberry, father of Michael, at a hospital news conference Tuesday. "He started walking and at one point when he was walking he thought maybe he'd walk as far as the road and hitchhike home."
"We're going to have our lectures about hitchhiking again," the elder Auberry added. "We've had them in the past, but with a special vigor, we'll go over that again with Michael."
A dog caught Michael's scent less than a mile from the campsite where he had wandered away Saturday. The disappearance touched off an intensive search involving bloodhounds, heat-seeking helicopters and dozens of volunteers on foot.
A 2-year-old Shiloh shepherd called Gandalf picked up the boy's scent, "popped his head three times" and there was Michael, walking along a stream, said Misha Marshall, Gandalf's trainer.
"He was a little dazed," Marshall said. "You are totally overwhelmed. You at first don't believe he's the person you're looking for."
Searchers gave the boy — whom his father described as tired and dehydrated — granola bars, crackers and water. At the hospital after his rescue, he ate chicken fingers and asked for cookies.
Michael "wants to thank Gandalf especially — even though he ate the peanut butter crackers they gave him," Kent Auberry joked.
It was not clear exactly how the boy was able to survive or whether he put any of his Scout wilderness training to use. Kent Auberry said he still didn't know much about his son's ordeal, mostly because he decided not to ask too many questions.
"He's got a tremendous life spirit," he said.
Michael said he slept in tree branches, drank river water and curled up under rocks. "He saw the helicopters and heard people calling him, but he yelled back and they didn't hear him," Kent Auberry said.
Michael had worn two jackets, one of them fleece, and was believed to have a mess kit and potato chips with him when he disappeared. Searchers found the kit within a mile of the camp site a few hours after he disappeared. The boy also said he lost his hat and glasses in the woods.
Once rescued, the first thing he said to searchers was that "he wanted a helicopter ride out of there," said Blue Ridge Parkway ranger David Bauer.
Aside from a few cuts and scratches, Michael was in good health. Because he had been without food and water, he was carried on a stretcher to a nearby road and then taken to see his parents.
"A lot of tears, a lot of hugs," said Tina White, spokeswoman for the National Park Service.
Later, Michael went by ambulance to the hospital. Along the way, he received IV fluids to help him rehydrate and told his father he wanted to sleep, said ambulance driver Bud Lane.
Hours earlier, the boy's father had talked about one of Michael's favorite books when he was younger, a story titled "Hatchet" about a boy whose plane crashes in the wilderness, and how the boy survives on his own.
"I think he's got some of that book in his mind," said Kent Auberry, whose son had camped overnight several times before. "They do a great job in the Scouts of educating the kids of what to beware of and tips. I'm hopeful that Michael has taken those to heart."
After the rescue, Kent Auberry said: "To have our son back is a tremendous blessing." But he offered a plea from Michael about making up his sixth-grade schoolwork.
"He's worried about make-up work in Miss Self's class," Auberry said. "So if Miss Self could cut him a break, he would be very, very grateful."