Two decades ago when a boy became lost while hiking with his parents in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Lee Lewis was left with an empty feeling.
"I had a son about the same age at the time and realized that if that were my kid, I would want everybody out looking for him," Lewis said recently.
He promptly offered his services to the National Park Service, but he was politely turned down because he didn't have the proper training for search and rescue operations. The boy was found after several suspenseful days, but Lewis immediately vowed to attain the required knowledge.
Reaching the goal has been rewarding but has led to some unforgettable physically and emotionally challenging experiences, the Smoky Mountain Outfitters staffer admitted.
Certified as a Search and Rescue technician II, wilderness first responder and man-tracker, Lewis has more than 1,400 hours of SAR training and instructs law enforcement officers in the art of tracking. He is a member of the National Association for Search and Rescue and the Society of Professional Access Technicians.
Lewis' most physically demanding search, he said, involved an overdue hiker in the Linville Falls section of North Carolina, outside the park.
"He was a young man, about 18, who had maybe some minor injuries and had to be evacuated," Lewis said. "But that was steep, mountainous terrain. There was no turning back for a lot of reasons, among them that you have to walk your grid - and, too, you're looking for somebody's loved one.
"Fortunately, that had a happy ending."
Not all the searches do. In one case, a boy hiking with his family in the Rainbow Falls section of the park "playfully ran ahead and vanished," Lewis recalled, and was found dead about a week later at the bottom of a waterfall. He apparently had slipped.
"I just remember those parents standing there," Lewis said. "While they thanked us every day, you could see the message on their faces: 'Find my boy.'"
That indelible memory is why Lewis preaches the importance of staying together when families or other hiking groups visit Smoky Mountain Outfitters.
"Sometimes I will get down on my knees at eye level with the youth," he said, "and tell them, 'Don't let Mom and Dad get ahead of you.'"
Hike at least in pairs, he also urges, and even better is to have three or more on a trip. If one becomes injured or ill, someone can go for help while another stays with the victim.
Carrying a whistle is another good safety measure, said Lewis, who was a speaker at the annual Wilderness Week that ended Sunday in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
"Many people say, 'I don't need a whistle. I can yell,'" he noted. "But a whistle sound will carry up to two miles, while a yell will only carry a few hundred yards."
Visitors have a tendency to underestimate the park, Lewis believes.
"A lot of people are in downtown Gatlinburg and it's 80 degrees," he said. "But if they hike up to Mount LeConte, they'll lose three degrees for every thousand feet of (altitude) gain. It will be 65 degrees up there and they won't have the proper clothing.
"You don't want to take on Mother Nature (unprepared)," he warned. "She'll spank you and send you back home every time."