A 12-year-old Boy Scout missing for four days in North Carolina's wilderness wandered away from his campsite because he was homesick and planned to hitchhike home, the boy's father said Tuesday.
Kent Auberry expressed overwhelming relief and said it was a "tremendous blessing" to have his son Michael back.
"[Michael's mother] and I started to think about who to thank, and we realized the list would be maybe even in the thousands," he said.
Michael told his father he slept in tree branches during the night, drank river water and prayed he wouldn't get sick. He said he got homesick because some of his closest friends had not gone on the camping trip, so he planned to walk to a highway and hitchhike to his home in Greensboro, North Carolina.
"We're going to have that lecture about hitchhiking again," Auberry said.
Auberry said his son wanted to thank Gandalf, the sharp-nosed dog who helped find him.
Searchers and Gandalf found Michael on Tuesday about a mile and a half northeast of the camp where he was last seen on Saturday.
Aerial footage showed police carrying the boy from a white sport-utility vehicle into a ranger station in nearby Laurel Springs, North Carolina. Police held a large, white sheet over the boy as they carried him into the station.
"He is alive," ranger Tina White said. "We're all smiling now."
Footage from the search scene showed a rescuer holding up a walkie-talkie as one of the searchers who discovered the boy declares, "They have found Michael. He is OK."
Searcher Misha Marshall said Gandalf detected Michael's scent and alerted rescuers. When they approached Michael "he was a little disoriented, but he's great," Marshall said.
"It took him a minute to realize we were there for him," she said. Asked how Michael reacted when he saw the rescuers, Marshall recalled Michael saying, " 'I'm hungry, give me some water,' stuff like that."
Added Dave Bauer of the Blue Ridge Parkway National Park Service. "Once they said they found him he said he wanted a helicopter ride out."
Michael was "weak but in good condition" and authorities were planning to bring him out of the woods in a vehicle rather than allowing him to walk out, she said.
The boy needed minor medical treatment for dehydration, and was scheduled to be taken later to a location where he would be debriefed and reunited with his family, White said.
For three days, searchers combed the forest for Michael, who disappeared from his troop's campsite on Saturday at Doughton Park, along the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Virginia state line.
Michael Auberry's father expressed confidence earlier Tuesday that his son was surviving in the North Carolina wilderness.
Before reports surfaced that Michael had been found, Auberry confidently told reporters, "I think he's hunkered down somewhere. I hope he's found a warm place."
Auberry, a Greensboro, North Carolina, attorney, said if he had it to do all over again, he would allow Michael to take part in the camping trip.
"I trusted the Boy Scouts to take him on this trip," Auberry said. "When we find him, I will trust the same group to take him on a trip again."
About 25 search-and-rescue groups and several dog teams looked for the boy Tuesday.
Weather remained a concern for searchers because temperatures have hovered near and below freezing at night. White said Michael was wearing a heavy coat and boots and had received Scout training to cover himself with leaves to keep warm.
On Sunday, the day after he disappeared, searchers found snack wrappers and a mess kit used by Michael about a half mile from the camp where he was last seen, park service officials said. They also found footprints with impressions similar to the boots Michael was wearing, but White said those had not been confirmed as the boy's footprints.
Michael, who is from Greensboro, North Carolina, had remained with an adult at the campsite Saturday while other Scouts went for a hike, said Bauer of the park service. Michael was one of four boys and seven adults on the trip.
Dave Craft, assistant scoutmaster, said Michael stayed behind because his feet got cold after playing in a creek. He was tired and wasn't feeling well, said Craft, who left the group Saturday afternoon on business.
When the other Scouts returned, they ate lunch with Michael, who later disappeared from the camp, Bauer said.
Once Scouts and their leaders noticed that Michael was not in camp, they began a search and, within a half-hour, called the park service, Bauer said.