The long-awaited good news came at 2:34 a.m. Friday for the Laga family of Florence.
For nearly a week, their living room had been turned in the headquarters for a search effort for 25-year-old Kaden Laga of Utah. He had been missing in the rugged Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness since last Saturday after he had volunteered to walk ahead when one of the family’s horses went lame.
Over the last five days, a ground and air search had turned up nothing.
Thursday night, five of the search parties set up their camps in the area between Elbow Bend and Bear Creek. Sometime just after 2 a.m., Laga walked into the camp that was tucked in near the confluence of Bear and Santa creeks.
All of search parties had been equipped with GPS devices preset with text messages that would let the Laga family know that he had been found.
Kelsie Potts of Dallas said her sister, Haylie Biggs of Middleton, Idaho, was just getting ready to turn in for the night when the text first appeared that their brother was found and all was well. She had to wait a few moments for the confirmation text.
“There was a lot of screaming that happened right after that,” Potts said. “It took a few moments for her to calm down enough to tell us the news. And then there was really a lot of screaming and jumping up and down.”
On Friday, family members gathered in the morning at the Hamilton Airport to greet their son, husband, brother and friend.
The first helicopter that attempted to carry him back to safety had to turn back because the area was too heavily wooded to land safely.
Kaden Laga’s mother, Debbie Laga, said that while the experience has been “horrible, there have been so many sweet blessings and tender mercies that have come from this. … We’ve heard from people who haven’t prayed for years and years. They prayed and fasted. We felt their prayers.
“The outpouring from this community and beyond has been unbelievable,” Laga said.
The seven children of the Laga family grew up enjoying the outdoors.
Initially they started backpacking, but Potts said her father had a love for horses and they eventually started riding and packing into the Bitterroot backcountry.
“We have had things happen in the backcountry, but never anything like this,” Potts said. “We all just hoped that Kaden would remember everything that he learned growing up.”
Debbie Laga said three of the family’s children had joined their father on this trip into the Moose Creek Ranger Station in Idaho. The trail turned out to be a little more rugged and longer than expected. One of their horses began to struggle.
At Moose Creek, they decided to take the load off that horse and lead it back. That left one of the four in party afoot.
Kaden Laga offered to walk.
“He’s very fit,” said his mother. “He walks fast.”
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Kaden left about 40 minutes ahead of the rest of his family. The plan had been to meet at Indian Lake and spend the night there. Since horses tend to walk faster than people, everyone expected they all would meet somewhere on the trail before arriving at the lake.
Debbie Laga said they arrived at the lake, but her son wasn’t there. While the other two siblings made camp, Laga’s father got back on his horse and rode five or six miles down the trail looking for him without any luck.
They decided that maybe he had missed the lake and walked out to the Twin Lakes trailhead.
On Sunday, they discovered he wasn’t there, either.
They loaded up the horses and drove far enough down Lost Horse to where they could get cellphone coverage.
“They called and told me they don’t have Kaden,” Debbie Laga said. “I immediately called search and rescue.”
Initially, officials asked the Lagas to wait before returning to the area to begin a search so a helicopter using infrared technology had a chance to take a look.
“That was the worst part,” Debbie Laga said. “The waiting. The immediate thing we wanted to do was go back in there and find him.”
So they took down the family photo in their front room and replaced it with a map. And then people from both near and far began calling and texting to find out what they could do.
“Hundreds and hundreds of people wanted to come and join the search,” Potts said. “We joked that everyone we’ve known in our entire lives wanted to help.”
A group in Utah gathered freeze-dried food that searchers could use. Others in the Bitterroot Valley put together a truckload of supplies. Still others sent money to help pay for expenses.
“People would text me and ask what they could do,” Debbie Laga said. “I would tell them to pray. We had all the people we could safely use for the search. All we could do was pray.”
And at 2:34 a.m., those prayers were answered.
“This was a horrendous experience that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” Debbie Laga said. “But there have been so many amazing blessings that have come with it, too. And now, we have the best possible outcome.”
The family let the world know the good news in a Facebook post at 2:45 a.m.
“We found him,” the post read. “And he’s alive. He walked into one of the camps set up and he is healthy and well. Thank you, thank you, thank you again for everyone’s effort and prayers.”
Laga was reunited with his family at about 4 p.m. at the Hamilton Airport. He was airlifted out by helicopter piloted by Allan Jessop of Choice Aviation.
Laga was healthy and did not require any medical attention.