ERWIN — Hiking is a passion for Gray residents Dave and Cheryl Merriken, and they love to go to Flat Top Mountain in Poplar, N.C., for a walk.
On Thursday, the couple arrived there about 10:15 a.m. with their dogs, Jesse and Honey. They parked their rental car for what was expected to be a short hike — intending to be home before 3 p.m. when their sons, Dakota and David, got home from school.
“I enjoy the mountains,” said Dave Merriken, 59, who is a captain on a barge. “I work for a month at sea, and I’m home for a month. And all I ever do when I’m home is hike the mountains. Me and my wife have hiked that mountain over and over and over again.”
But this time, their plan went awry, and they ended up lost. They spent the night in the rain under leaf cover with no ability to start a fire. Their ordeal ended about 6:30 p.m. Friday when 911 was notified that a group from USA Raft had caught up with the Merrikens and was taking them to the company’s facility in the Nolichucky gorge.
In the meantime, a large group of Unicoi County public safety personnel was searching Flat Top Mountain and lower areas for the couple. Authorities had been alerted Thursday night and began looking for them then. Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Kelly Blevins and Marty Luttrell, a friend from church, found the Merrikens’ car on Flat Top Mountain about noon Friday.
Based on the car’s condition, UCSD Capt. Rick Butler said there was no indication of foul play. He speculated Dave Merriken might have injured his reportedly troublesome knee. Luttrell agreed injury was the most likely scenario but thought it was odd Cheryl Merriken did not come out of the woods.
“We took a new trail, Tagger Creek Trail, to go down to Lost Cove, and we could not find our way back,” said Dave Merriken, who learned after he was rescued that the cove could not be reached through that route. “We just couldn’t pick the trail up coming out of there.”
He said they tried to find their way until it grew dark about 9 p.m. Thursday. Because they had hiked in that area many times without incident, the couple had left their cell phone in the car.
“We didn’t have any gear with us at all,” he said. “It was raining, and it was cold, and we had been hiking hard all day long. We didn’t have a lot of water during the day. And it was a very uncomfortable night.”
“Yesterday afternoon, I got scared because it was raining and it was going to be getting dark,” Cheryl Merriken said. “We had no idea where we were. I don’t like being lost at all. I get scared if I get lost.”
Back at home, 15-year-old Dakota, their older son, figured when he came home from school that his parents would be home soon. When that didn’t happen, he thought they had taken on a more difficult trail. By nightfall, he concluded they had gotten lost. Some friends of the family called police, and a missing persons report was compiled by the Washington County Sheriff’s Department.
Dakota said he was happy when his parents were found but said he never feared for their survival because of their history in the woods.
“I figured they were in a jam and it was getting nightfall so they decided to stay there until they could find a way out,” Dakota said.
At daybreak, the Merrikens tried unsuccessfully to find their way out. By 3 p.m., Dave said he told his wife that he did not want to stay another night in the mountains because he didn’t want anyone to worry about them. He felt the only option was to walk down to the Nolichucky River and follow the CSX Transportation tracks to Erwin.
“We were in the process of doing that when there were some rafts coming down the river from USA Raft here,” Dave said. “I had my wife call to them and ask them how far a walk we had to Erwin. They informed us that they had been notified that we had been lost and were looking out as part of the search.
“They brought us back down the river in the rafts, which saved us from having to walk the train tracks.”
The couple brought two apples and two oranges Thursday for their trip, and they ended up drinking water from a creek and the Nolichucky because their legs were cramping.
Despite the experience, the Merrikens won’t be giving up hiking. Dakota said the family plans to return to the area soon.