Setting: New Horizons Youth Ministries Bootcamp in Missanabie, Ontario, CA (1998)
They made the announcement at breakfast that Clark had gone missing. The morning before he had been dropped off by canoe into the remote woods for his 48-hour solo, a survival test where they sent us off into the woods with meager supplies for 48 hours to "get close to God" and demonstrate our ability to survive alone in the wild.
Clark and I had gotten closer since the Dominican. He was a hilarious, light-hearted but deep guy who remained ferociously positive during his tenure in the Program. He was also athletic, driven and agile. If anyone could survive these rugged Ontario woods, it was him. I hoped he was safe, but I was terrified an animal had him. There had recently been dozens of bear and wolf sightings.
"What’s happening?!" I ran yelling to the director, forgetting my place in the strict hierarchy nature of the cult.
"Meaghan, calm down," he shunned. "We’re doing everything we can to find him."
"When’s the last time you saw him? Were his supplies found? Was there any blood? How many people are searching for him?..." I drilled out questions as a small group circled around us. High rankers were the only ones allowed to leave our table without asking staff for permission, otherwise all the campers would have been standing with us too. Clark was one of those people who was loved by all.
The director raised his hand to the forming crowd, and told us staff hadn’t observed him by the water’s edge in the morning, so they canoed over to check on him. He was nowhere to be found. His sleeping bag, tarp, water bottle, fishing hook and Bible, which were most of his supplies, were laying near the waterfront. They searched the immediate area to no available and radioed in for backup. All non-essential staff were sent to help with the ground search. "Have you contacted the police? Are helicopters searching for him?" I pressed.
"Don’t be dramatic," the director condescended. "We’re nowhere close to needing that at this point."
"Can I join the search party?" I asked.
"No," he replied curtly. "We don’t need anymore students going missing. But you and his other high ranking friends can go to the chapel and pray for him if you want.
Without any other options, I marched to the chapel. I was furious they hadn’t called police and weren’t letting me help. Thanks to my childhood obsession with Unsolved Mysteries, I knew we were working against the clock - the first 48 hours were the most critical when someone goes missing. It was alarming they were so calm. They really don’t care about our lives here, I snorted as I sped-walked to the chapel. They probably wanted to handle it quietly so parents didn’t find out. I was sure if we'd try to write home about it, the letter monitors would burn the letters.
I burst through the chapel door to find a group of staff on their knees, praying for his return. Why weren't they helping with the search? I took a seat and started crying. We couldn’t trust our lives with these people. I was deeply worried for Clark. The prayer group had a radio line to the search team of about twenty staff who were combing Clark's drop-off site. They'd be the first to hear of any news, so I spent most of the day there until I was forced to report back for dinner, chores and bed. I barely slept and awoke immediately thinking of Clark. "Any news?" I asked my group leader, Drew.
"They haven't found him yet," he replied grimly with sunken eyes.
We finished our chores and went to breakfast. Drew nodded to me before I could ask to be excused from work duty to go back to the chapel. This kind of work release was unheard of, and I was grateful. I made my way to the chapel and joined the staff and a few of Clark’s other high ranking friends. I gritted my teeth as the staff occasionally broke out in group prayers and song. Why aren't they out there searching for him??
I worried this vigil would turn into a funeral service. He had spent two nights alone now. Who knows what physical state he was in. Was he injured? I wondered if his parents had even been called yet.
The hours ticked by slowly as we awaited news. I don’t remember the time of day, but suddenly "We found him, he's alive and well" crackled over the radio. Everyone burst into celebratory yells.
"Holy shit, he’s alive!" I shrieked as the curse word slipped from my mouth, the staff too caught up in the moment to punish me for it. They began breaking out into Jesus songs and randomly yelling out quotes from scripture, as if their prayers had anything to do with it.
Details rolled in as they got him back to basecamp. He had gotten lost while setting up his 100-foot camp perimeters, a requirement for our survival test. He was found not far from his campsite, shrouded in the dense forest. After he had wandered lost for a bit trying to find the waterfront, he stopped moving around so he wouldn’t get lost any further, just like we were taught. He settled down and built himself a decent shelter, which kept him warm overnight. Staff in the chapel said they were proud of him, but we were also told he was in trouble.
They brought him back and gave him a meal, then he was sent to the chapel to thank us for our prayers. I was able to give him a quick handshake, the only amount of physical contact we were allowed to have, and tell him I was so glad he was alive. He seemed fine, not even that shaken. I wondered if he was in shock, or if it really hadn’t been that scary for him. I hoped it was the latter.
After that, I didn’t see him for a few days. I don’t know what his punishment was, he never talked about it, but I believe he failed his forty-eights and dropped a level or two. Someone mentioned he may have received swats.
At our next survival class I asked our teacher Gary why he had failed Clark on his 48s. To me, it sounded like he should have aced it because he actually survived a real situation and built a shelter like he was trained to. "I don’t know," Gary said, shrugging his shoulders. "They told me I had to."
Note: A lot of time has passed since these events happened. Some names have been changed.