*Editor’s Note: Three-year-old Dawson Coates disappeared from a family campsite at Cottonwood Lake on Friday, July 25. Just over 13 hours later, the boy was found alive and well. Here is the story of the search as related by Dawson’s grandmother, Jan Barrus Boully.
Friday evening, July 26, began with our family fixing dinner at our camp site at Cottonwood Lake. Around 7 o’clock, Todd announced that dinner was almost done and as I looked around at the kids playing near the campfire, I noticed that Dawson wasn’t with them.
I wasn’t too alarmed because my husband, Dennis, and his two daughters were also not there. I figured that Dawson had was them, wherever that might be.
Just a few minutes later, I went over to tell Meg, Mandy and Dennis that dinner was ready and was sure that I’d see Dawson with them. I first noticed Meg just outside of her tent, alone. I asked her if Dawson was with her and she said no. I then asked if Dawson was with her dad and Mandy. She replied that she didn’t think so.
At that moment I noticed Dennis and Mandy walking up the road and Dawson wasn’t with them. I jogged the little ways back to camp and mentioned to Jaimee that Dawson was missing. This is a phrase that I think every parent has said hundreds of times as there are moments when a child was within sight just moments ago, and then are gone.
I headed across the creek and over to a rock-formation water fountain that Dawson had liked to go and play on since we’d been at that camp spot. No Dawson.
I kept walking on the trail which eventually led to a road that went up to a sheep camp. I was calling for Dawson and at about this time realized that I could hear other echo’s of ‘Dawson, Dawson’ from other family members who had realized he was missing and had joined in my search.
I heard an off-road-vehicle coming up behind me and turned to see Jaimee and three other passengers driving up the road. I continued running up the road and away from the noise of the ORV so that I could listen for any response from Dawson, in case he had heard me calling his name.
I ran up the trail so fast that I was completely out of breath and my heart was pounding. I continued to hear Dawson’s name called out by numerous people and so I knew that he hadn’t been located yet. It was at this point that I paused and took a moment to stop and say a heartfelt prayer, asking my Heavenly Father to please, please help me know which direction to look for him.
I started back down the road and turned off on another trail which was on the north side of our camp. I climbed some rocks to see if I could see around the area better and spot any sign of Dawson. The creek that ran below these rocks was very loud at this particular place as it went over logs and boulders. I could yell his name, but probably wouldn’t have heard any response even if he gave one.
I climbed back down and headed down the road I originally ran up, passing by a couple of campgrounds filled with campers sitting down to eat dinner. I looked down into their camps to see if I could spot an extra little 3-year-old boy with a blue jacket on, but Dawson wasn’t in either camp.
A couple of vehicles passed me on the road and I remember looking at one of the cars, which was a maroon Honda Odyssey and was being driven by an older gentleman who appeared to be by himself in the car. At the bottom of the road, I met up with Todd and Stephanie in his Ranger. He told me to get in and they would drive me back up to camp.
Just then my dad pulled up in his truck and I asked him if he’d checked down by the lake yet. He hadn’t, so I got in his truck and we drove down to the lake. We followed the road alongside the lake to the very end. We stopped to the side of a lady and two teenagers to ask them if they had seen a little boy. They said they hadn’t, but that they had been told he was missing and they were out searching for him already.
We turned the truck around and headed back up to camp, at which time we passed the same Honda Odyssey heading down the road, leaving our camping area.
When I got back to our campsite, I was told that no one had been able to find Dawson yet and that Dennis and Chelsey (my niece), had left to go out and call the Search and Rescue. It was now about 8 o’clock and we knew that we didn’t have much daylight left.
It had already started to cool off and just prior to Dawson disappearing, I had put his sweat jacket on him because he told me he was getting cold. I met up with my mom and Amy Schulz and we decided to head north again, which was the area I had already searched but was on the east side of the creek.
This time we stayed on the west side of the creek and a little ways up the trail, I told them to go down low and I would take the high trail. I could see my brother, Jared, walking down the middle of the creek with a stick, calling Dawson’s name and lifting up the willow branches and clearing back everything that a child could get caught in if they had had the misfortune of falling into the water.
The water was waist-deep in some spots, and I couldn’t imagine how cold he must be. I saw my sister, Laurie, around this same time combing another trail and calling for Dawson. I left the trail and was climbing up over fallen trees and thick brush. Our dog Buddy got caught up and I could hear him whimpering because he couldn’t get up over some of the logs I was crossing. I didn’t have time to go back and get him and hoped he could find his way back, because I couldn’t use up what little time we had by carrying him with me or having to go back and get him.
I went quite a ways, far enough that I didn’t think Dawson could have made it that far in that amount of time. At this point I found another secluded place by a tree and knelt down and offered up another frantic prayer, pleading to have help in finding Dawson.
My only thought was to head back to camp and see if he had climbed up into our car and fallen asleep. As I was making my way back to our camp, at the end of the trail I saw my mom, my sister-in-law Kimmy, and my cousin Amy kneeling on the trail in prayer. When I got to the bottom, they were just finishing and standing up.
It was at this point that I was overcome with emotions and began to sob, realizing that Dawson was really lost and no one had been able to find him in over an hour. They reassured me that everything would be okay and that he would be found.
It was at this time I met up with Dennis. He had returned from calling 911 and I could see the fear on his face that Dawson still hadn’t been found. I could still hear people shouting Dawson’s name and see family members and other campers walking through trees and on various trails looking for him.
I made my way down to a clearing by the horse corrals where the first volunteer was just showing up. It happened to be the man who lived at the bottom of the canyon where my husband had stopped to place the 911 call.
He and his son had stopped what they were involved in and without hesitation, headed up to our campground to help search for a little 3-year-old boy who was lost.
Minutes later the first Search and Rescue member was just pulling in. It was Robert Roberts. He immediately started to set up a command post and as volunteers from other campgrounds began to show up, he asked for someone who would be able to take notes and keep track of the searchers, the areas that had been searched, and the events as they unfolded.
Kimmy volunteered and immediately began typing notes up on her iPhone. Every few minutes, another vehicle would show up with members of the Search and Rescue inside. Two officers from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department arrived and I went over to talk with them and answer questions to help in the search.
Jaimee and Jared headed out of the canyon so that Jared could go find Carrie Dunn and see if her husband would be able to fly his plane over the area to help search. Jaimee was to call Dawson’s dad and let him know that he was missing and we were doing everything we could to look for him.
It was quite dark at this point and getting cold. The command center vehicle truck showed up and a generator was started, turning on high-powered lights that lit up the clearing where we were all gathered.
Around 10 p.m. they informed us that there was a dog team on their way, about 90 minutes out, as well as a helicopter coming from Salt Lake. This gave me some hope in a nighttime search, as I knew it must be very difficult for those on foot to find our little Dawson in these conditions.
The sheer number of volunteers who were showing up was overwhelming to us. This was a Friday night; these people have families and other obligations, yet here they were, dropping whatever they were involved in and coming to help us when we felt so helpless.
We just could not understand how Dawson could have just vanished that quickly with no trace. I had mentioned to the deputies about the maroon van I had seen around the time I was first searching for Dawson. They checked the surrounding camp areas and no van was found, but this information had been passed on and other campgrounds and areas were being searched, looking for this maroon van.
Dawson was officially listed with The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and posters were made and started to be distributed. The paramedics from Afton showed up and the search team from Kemmerer were called, but told to stand by.
Around midnight the first dog team arrived and shortly thereafter we heard the helicopter coming up over the mountain. This was all so very overwhelming. It seemed like the night was taking forever; but, as I looked at the time, the duration that he had been missing was increasing so quickly.
Throughout the early morning hours in the darkness, more searchers were sent out, some with an infrared unit to see if they could detect anything. Still no sign of Dawson.
What worried me the most was that I was sure he was scared and cold. Given the fact that he woke up the previous night crying because he was cold, it was hard to believe that he wasn’t crying somewhere now, because he had very little clothing protection and the night before he was in a sleeping bag.
It just didn’t seem like he was gone very long before I noticed him missing and an all-out search for him began. He was only 3 years old; how far could he make it before an adult could catch up with him?
A million things will run through your mind when you are sitting there in the dark and cold outdoors, wondering what could have happened to him. The sheer number of people who had turned up to search for Dawson, as well as those we had also been told were on stand-by and ready to come aid in his search gave us hope.
There began to be talk of getting some horses in to help search once the sun came up. My brother Todd told them there were a couple of horses he could get down at my dad’s place. Since he had been up this whole time, he decided to get what rest he could. Around 5 a.m. he went down the canyon to get horses.
The sky began to get a little lighter as daylight was near and I couldn’t believe we had been sitting up all night long with still no sign of Dawson.
The helicopter returned and began searching again from the air. I was hopeful that in the daylight the searchers would be able to have better luck finding Dawson.
At least, the sun would come out and it would be warmer so he wouldn’t be cold.
When Todd went out to get the horses he said the truck thermometer reported 36 degrees down in Fairview. Laurie and Todd returned with the horses just after 7 o’clock. I wasn’t sure if my dad would be able to go out searching with Todd as his knees had been very painful during the night.
Todd was only going to bring one horse, but decided to get two in case my dad could ride. Once he got back, Laurie went to check and see if my dad was awake or not. He wasn’t, and so she decided to just let him sleep, as it had been a long night for everyone.
Minutes later we saw my dad walking down the road, ready to head out with Todd on the search for Dawson.
Several other people had already left to search on horseback.
My dad and Todd headed north behind our campsite around 7:20 a.m. I had heard Todd tell me many times during the night what good people there were searching for Dawson and that they would find him. I could tell that as the hours went by, the hopes of finding a 3-year-old boy in good condition were fading, but I was so grateful, as was my entire family, for the dedication of everyone who took part in searching.
Just after 8 o’clock I could hear some commotion up towards our campsite and where my dad and Todd had taken off on horseback. I saw my dad riding his horse and Todd close behind.
My mom shouted, “They’ve got him”! I stood up and began running up the road. I couldn’t see Dawson but could hear people yelling that they’d found him. Once my dad got closer, I saw Dawson tucked in behind him on the saddle, hanging on to his great-grandpa.
I have never experienced this kind of joy or relief before. We had all been experiencing the greatest depths of despair and now, with this news, the greatest joy. The entire camp/search site erupted in cheers, which continued as each rescue party arrived and heard the good news.
Dawson was passed around to a few family members and then taken to be assessed by one of the paramedics. He appeared to be in remarkably good shape considering his conditions over the past 13 hours.
The pilots of the helicopter offered Dawson and his parents a ride down to the hospital in Afton so he could be checked out there and released. He had a few scratches on his legs, but other than that he was in amazing shape.
When asked what happened to him, he doesn’t give much explanation other than he got lost. When my dad and Todd found him, they said it looked as though he had just woken up and was sitting on a log.
He had found a perfect place to sleep in between two fallen trees that had a pine needle bed beneath them. He said he had slept there and had taken his jacket off and covered himself up because he wanted a blanket.
Knowing Dawson’s personality, this is not typical of anything that he would normally do. We believe that Dawson was watched over and protected that night, and finding him unharmed after that many hours was truly a miracle.
We are truly grateful for his safety and so appreciative of the many people who came and helped search for Dawson.
It was overwhelming to see the community of Star Valley and the surrounding resources be so quick to respond to our cry for help.
We know that many of these calls don’t always turn out this way and feel very blessed to have a happy ending to Dawson’s story.