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Faith guided Modesto dad while son, 7, was lost in wilderness

PINECREST — After spending the night alone and lost in the Emigrant Wilderness, what did 7-year-old Brian Hill want for breakfast? Peanut butter pancakes.

Not your typical camping meal, but Brian didn't have a typical camping experience.

The Hughson boy went missing about 1 p.m. Saturday during a dads-and-sons weekend of fishing, hiking and relaxing in the backcountry east of Pinecrest. He was found just before 10 a.m. Sunday, in what family and friends are calling a miracle of God.

Brian is doing fine, said his father, John Hill, who didn't want Brian interviewed Monday to keep him out of the media spotlight. He described his son as having a good character as well as being very smart, active and funny.

Despite spending a night alone in the mountains, Brian still wants to go camping, just not as far out in the wilderness, Hill said.

"It was a terrible thing, but I knew that I had to stay strong," John Hill said Monday. "What a blessing. What a challenge to go through, as a father, but I knew the Lord was with us and that he doesn't give us anything more than we can handle."

Those involved in the ordeal recounted the event for The Bee on Monday.

For a decade, avid outdoorsman Chad Wolf has organized trips into the Emigrant Wilderness for friends who want to experience the secluded areas of the Sierra beyond the reach of cell phones.

Wolf provides food, cooking equipment and tents, and campers carry in their clothing and sleeping bags. Most of the 25 who went this past weekend are from Wolf's church, Big Valley Grace Community Church. Six of the campers were young boys, he said.

This was Gary Ericksen and his son's third year camping with Wolf, and Ericksen invited the Hills. The camp is two to three miles from the trailhead, where cars are parked. Campers set up a home base near a few small lakes.

The boys and men were enjoying "roughing it" until Saturday afternoon. Brian and another boy were returning from fishing with their dads. The boys challenged the elders to a footrace back to camp, but Brian didn't return.

It appears he veered off the main trail onto another road and kept going. Although Brian didn't recognize his surroundings, he figured he hadn't gone far enough, the boy explained to his father after he was found.

Brian, who was wearing shorts and a dark-blue hooded sweat shirt, was not far from camp when he disappeared. After the adults shouted Brian's name for almost 30 minutes, worry started setting in.

"Everybody's got a carbon copy of Brian," Ericksen said about himself and the other fathers. "We didn't need to be motivated."

By 5 p.m., with no word from Brian, Wolf headed toward "cell phone mountain," where his phone gets a signal, and called for help. He also called family, who started praying.

Hill was calm, but Wolf said you could see the worry in his eyes. As the hours passed, searchers thought about the possibility that Brian was injured or that he'd fallen in a lake. But they kept praying and looking.

Search and rescue officials and volunteers from the Tuol-umne County Sheriff's Department convened at the area late Saturday as sunlight gave way to a mostly full moon.

Campers tried to sleep so they'd be fresh Sunday morning, but Tuolumne search and rescue personnel checked the area all night. They got help from Calaveras County Search and Rescue, the U.S. Forest Service and the California Highway Patrol.

Some were mounted on horses, and others brought in dogs to try to pick up Brian's scent.

The terrain hampered efforts. It took search and rescue team members 90 minutes to get to the trailhead, then longer to get to the areas where they thought Brian might be. Described as a craggy granite area, it has trees and brush that can block or absorb shouts.

When daylight broke Sunday, campers rejoined the search and rescue team. That's when Ericksen decided to try something. One of the search and rescue officials told him children sometimes go for high places when they're lost.

He climbed peaks and shouted for Brian. On the third one, he shouted again and waited for the echo to finish. He heard a faint noise, but thought it was another person yelling "Brian."

Then he realized the sound he heard wasn't made by an adult.

"I yelled his name again, then I heard 'Daddy?' " Ericksen said. "I asked, 'Brian, is that you?' and he shouted 'Yes.' I ran down the mountain, around a lake. I couldn't see him, but he could see me. I'd run for 30 seconds, then get him to talk again so I could follow his voice."

Once there, Ericksen gave Brian a bear hug. The boy was less than a mile from camp.

"It was just surreal. It's like a movie," Ericksen said.

When asked if he was OK, Brian hiked up his shorts to show scratches and bug bites on his legs. He'd found a patch of slightly wet grass to sleep on. Brian told Ericksen he thought the group had left him and cried throughout the night.

After some water, Brian had a juice box and granola bar that Ericksen was carrying. The two started walking back to camp when they came across Wolf, who fired three bullets in the air to signal that the boy had been found.

Search and rescue officials rode over and checked Brian. The helicopter then flew overhead, but was waved off because the boy didn't need medical care.

"Emotions were high. Everyone was in tears," Wolf said.

Brian's father was at the trailhead with his fiancé, Luisa; Brian's mom, Natalie; Brian's 11-year-old sister; and search and rescue organizers when news of the boy's recovery came crackling over the radio.

"I cried. Then, I knew I could cry, that it was OK to lose it," Hill said Monday, choking back tears.

When they reunited, Hill said his son told him, "I knew you wouldn't stop looking for me. "

The campers prayed several times throughout the ordeal. When family and friends heard of the trouble, they prayed, too. Word spread to more than a dozen churches in Modesto, Texas and Indiana. Big Valley Grace members prayed for Brian during Sunday morning services.

Less than an hour later, he was found. "God allowed it to happen," Wolf said.

He noted that while camping Thursday night, temperatures dipped to 28 degrees and frost formed on the ground. Saturday night when Brian was without shelter, it was 45 degrees with an almost full moon.

Wolf said he'd seen a bear and knew there were coyotes in the area. He said Brian easily could have been hurt by them without God's protection.

Finding Brian was a relief — a weight had been lifted, like taking a heavy backpack off after a long hike, said Tuol-umne sheriff's deputy Rob Lyons, organizer of Saturday and Sunday's search.

The Sheriff's Department receives calls for missing people about once a week, but most are resolved before the search and rescue team gets to the scene, Lyons said. About once a year, they'll have a search that lasts more than a day.

"It was a good outcome," he said of the search for Brian, "and that doesn't always happen."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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