Louisiana Scouts Rescued from Arkansas Wilderness Area

A National Guard helicopter plucked six stranded Louisiana Boy Scouts from a southwest Arkansas forest Tuesday morning and delivered them safely to nervous parents waiting at a camp supply store nearby.

The boys and two adult leaders had been missing since Sunday, when rising water cut off their exit from the Albert Pike Recreation Area. Twenty people died in flash floods here last June 11, and the boys’ parents had prayed and paced since arriving in the area Monday.

The helicopter crew spotted a campfire and some of the Scouts overnight Monday, then headed out again at first light.

“Our pilots had to wait on sunlight to be able to get in and land. We just got in and pulled them out,” Maj. Chris Heathscott said in an email to The Associated Press.

The parents waited Monday night at a local church, in a scene eerily similar to one nearly a year before. Families, miles away from home, waited with pastor Graig Cowart for news on whether their loved ones had survived the rising water.

“These people are really hurting,” he said. “They felt really alone and isolated.”

Cowart led the families in prayer, calling out the names of the stranded boys and asking for their safety. Relatives joined hands. Some cried. Some held each other. Cowart recited the last verse of the 27th Psalm, which says: “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”

Last June, 20 people camping along the Little Missouri River died when a flash flood scoured the valley floor. This year, the Louisiana Scouts camped above the flood plain but were stranded by the high waters. The Little Missouri River’s depth tripled over the weekend, and calls for help would have gone virtually nowhere in a remote area with little cellphone coverage.

Until Tuesday morning, no one had heard from the Scouts or their leaders from Troop 162 in Lafayette, La., since Thursday, when they arrived in Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains. The search began Monday morning, after the group didn’t show up back in Louisiana as expected.

Authorities scaled back search efforts after nightfall Monday, with strong winds and low clouds forcing a state police helicopter to turn back before the boys could be found. The National Guard sent a helicopter overnight as the weather began to clear.

At the church, the boys’ families – some dressed in matching Lafayette Boy Scouts shirts -had more reason to sustain hope than the relatives of the victims who gathered at Cowart’s Pilgrim Rest Landmark Missionary Baptist Church last June.

The Scouts were experienced backpackers for their age – 14 on average – and had previously camped in the recreation area. They knew that cellphone service there is shaky at best, so the group left behind detailed plans, said Art Hawkins, executive director of the Scouts’ Evangeline Area Council in Lafayette. One concern was how much food the group had left.

“This is a group that is going to be able to fend and use the survival skills they learned through scouting,” Hawkins said Monday night.

The Scouts were to have left the recreation area after breakfast Sunday and arrive in Louisiana that evening. When no one heard from them by late Sunday, Boy Scout officials contacted local authorities, Hawkins said.

One park official spotted the group’s vehicles outside the Winding Staircase entrance to the Eagle Rock trail late Sunday night, Hawkins said. It was already dark and pouring rain, so search teams waited to head toward the forest until after daybreak Monday.

Even then, bad weather hampered their efforts and by Monday night, the only search effort involved a few vehicles patrolling nearby roadways in the hope someone might come across the campers.

Creeks and streams rose quickly Saturday and Sunday after nearly 8 inches of rain fell. The Little Missouri stood at less than 4 feet at the Albert Pike campground when the Scouts arrived, but had reached 8 feet by Sunday morning and 11 feet early Monday, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Geological Survey. It was still running high Tuesday morning.