On the morning of her sixth day alone in the woods, Ava Zechiel awoke to the sound of a whistle. Without hesitation, she whistled back. And then, in a rush of relief and happiness, she heard a man yell, “Ava!”
In shock at hearing the voice, Zechiel was pulled out of her nightmare, but couldn’t form a response quickly, so just yelled out her own name. After calling back and forth for a couple of minutes, a dog came bounding towards her. Following close behind were two of the men sent to find her. While they were thrilled to discover her, they had not expected to take her home alive. “The dog wasn’t supposed to find a live body,” Zechiel said. “The dog was out there to find a corpse.”
On November 11, Zechiel was separated from her group while on the fourth day of a hiking expedition in the Cherokee National Forest with her alternative school. Zechiel left Wilson in early September of her junior year to attend Freedom Mountain Academy in Mountain City, Tennessee. According to the school’s website, it is a specialty boarding school for teens: “Students leave behind the distractions of contemporary society and enter a comprehensive program combining academic study, farm work, and wilderness adventure.”
Zechiel’s November expedition was not her first with the school. She and the eight other students attending Freedom Mountain Academy had previously gone on a similar expedition in October. “Our school is close enough to some of [Cherokee National Forest] that we can just walk to it,” Zechiel said.
While she picked up many new camping and hiking skills from her first expedition, nothing could have prepared Zechiel for her second trip.
Regardless of what led her to be separated from the group – she is not at liberty to discuss the circumstances – Zechiel was able to survive six days and five nights in an unfamiliar forest, all alone.
“Something that blew everyone’s mind was how did I live out there,” Zechiel said. “People were like, what were you thinking? I wasn’t thinking at all. I was trying not to think because if I thought, I would freak out or do something stupid, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to stay alive and do it to the best of my ability.”
Despite how scared Zechiel was, she managed to recall a crucial piece of information that she had been taught at her school before her first expedition. “They did say stay in one place because if I had moved every day… the chances are that they would have looked at the places I was, not the places I was at that moment.” Throughout the span of six days, she and her 30-pound pack only moved locations once.
On the day that she was separated from her group, Zechiel set up camp, pitching the tent each student carried. The first spot was about a mile from where the group last saw her, and the next night, she moved and set up camp about half of a mile from her original spot.
The majority of Zechiel’s days in the forest were spent sleeping. “To be honest I wasn’t doing anything, I stayed in my tent,” she said. She slept during the day to pass the time and to distract herself, but she still wanted to be able to fall asleep at night to keep her mind off of the severity of her situation. “I wanted to be asleep at night because the night is the scariest time out there, like you don’t want to be aware of what’s going on and the noises and all of that,” she said. On her last night in the forest, Zechiel slept for 15 hours. She was able to keep track of the time and the day using a watch that the school provided.
In addition to the watch, Zechiel had the tent, an emergency blanket, a sleeping pad, and clothing, including warm socks. For food, she had a little bit of trail mix and a snack called super fudge, which is a ball of chocolate and assorted nuts. She refrained from eating for the first two days in fear of running out of food too soon. “Something they [the school] taught everyone was hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” Zechiel said.
Zechiel said that a search-and-rescue worker told her she could have survived in the woods for three weeks, just with the food she had left over and with the amount of body fat she still had.
Another contributing factor to her survival was the water source she found on day two. “Day one I wasn’t worried about it because I had two full water bottles, but on day two, when I had run out, I was kind of just hoping it would rain,” she said. She managed to find a stream by listening for the sound of running water. On her first expedition, Zechiel was taught that as long as you know no one is peeing in it, it’s water – and water, purified or not, is better than not having water at all. “You can live a while without food, but you can’t live that long without water,” she said.
One of the most dangerous aspects of her circumstance was the temperature. Almost every night that Zechiel was out in the forest, the temperature plummeted below freezing. The treacherous temperatures heightened the urgency of the search. “If it was in the middle of spring, it would’ve been a different story, like they wouldn’t have been as worried because the temperature doesn’t kill you in the spring,” Zechiel said.
Luckily for her, the school had provided thermal underwear to all of the students before the trip. “Those are something that saved my life. If I hadn’t been wearing them, I’d probably have gotten frostbite.”
To Zechiel, the right equipment was one of the two most important contributions to her survival. “First of all, I wasn’t trying to be stupid, I was trying to keep my head on straight, but two: gear,” she said. “I had the right gear.”
On day five, she began to worry that she might not be found. “I was seriously at that point asking myself, somebody has gotta find me, right?” Zechiel did consider walking to a road, but quickly realized that, in addition to being warned against moving, she didn’t know which direction to walk in or how far it would take to reach a road. “It was so deep [in the forest] to the point where I couldn’t, my mind couldn’t think about where a road could be,” she said. “I was so lost already that I didn’t want to get myself further into that situation.”
When Zechiel was found by searchers in the woods, it was day six. “My first reaction was ‘can I hug you?’ I hugged the guys, and then I started crying,” Zechiel said. The two men packed up her belongings and drove her back to the local fire station, which had been the base of operations. After a 30 minute ride down on the ATV, she arrived at the fire station to be greeted by her parents, her uncle, her aunt, and her grandfather, in addition to hundreds of people who had been helping in the search. “It was insane,” Zechiel said. “I was like ‘wow all these people were looking for me.’”
Zechiel’s parents were worried about her water intake and planned to take her to the hospital as soon as she arrived; however, they decided not to go, even though Zechiel was feeling weak with hunger and having trouble walking. “Nothing came up, so we never ended up doing it, but we made an appointment with my personal doctor when we got home,” she said.
Zechiel immediately called her sister and grandmother, who were staying back in DC while her parents came out to Tennessee. “My sister’s immediate reaction was ‘oh my God, I’m so glad you’re okay, just by the way – you’re going to be on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow’ and I’m like okay,” Zechiel said.
The attention followed her all the way back to DC. She visited Wilson on Thursday, December 3, and was stopped multiple times by people she barely knew. “I went from Starbucks to Wilson, which is like a block, and I got stopped like six times,” Zechiel said.
Being back in a city that she is very familiar with is helping to keep Zechiel’s mind off of the traumatic events of last month. She said she is not currently suffering from post-traumatic stress. “I’m in the city and I’m more comfortable here than I ever would be out there,” she said. “I know the city like the back of my hand.”
While Zechiel had expected to spend the entire year at Freedom Mountain Academy, she is certain she will not be returning. As far as her plans for the rest of high school go, her parents are currently debating options. “It could very well be Wilson, it could very well be somewhere else,” she said.
At Wilson, the news that Zechiel had been found, safe and healthy, traveled through the building in minutes. Multiple teachers and students cried with relief and happiness upon hearing their former student, their friend, was alive and out of harm’s way. “You know just to hear that, even though [Wilson is] massive, we’re still a family,” Zechiel said. “As cheesy as that is.” •
PHOTO BY CARL STEWART