LUMBERTON — What was supposed to be a leisurely canoe trip down the Lumber River for a Durham family turned into a late night for lawmen and local rescuers who were dispatched to find them.
The search saga began Monday when Mark Kistler, Jeff Laughinghouse, Jeff Lilly and their three teenagers returned from the Princess Anne access area to Second Street in Lumberton to launch their four canoes into the Lumber River at about noon, Sheriff Ken Sealey said Tuesday.
The six, all blood relatives, had set up camp at the Princess Anne access area earlier in the day, Sealey said. Kistler and his son and daughter, 12 and 14 years old; Laughinghouse and his 15-year-old son; and Lilly left their wives to go up river by car to Lumberton and return to their families by canoe while enjoying the scenery the state park offers.
“They were expecting to take about four hours,” Sealey said. “When they didn’t show, their wives contacted park rangers.”
Park Superintendent Lane Garner said Tuesday that he tried to contact the men by phone, but the calls went straight to voicemail.
Unanswered calls prompted a search that began about 9:30 p.m. Monday and included Robeson County sheriff’s deputies, Lumberton police and Robeson County Emergency Medical Services personnel.
“We started a hasty search and couldn’t find them,” said Garner, who became superintendent of the Lumber River State Park on March 1.
After searching along the Lumber River for nearly five hours, two park rangers stumbled upon the men and their children at Buck Landing off Willoughby Road at about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday.
“They told us the dark caught up with them. Without proper lights to maneuver the river, they decided to get out of the water,” Sealey said. “They had no phone signal. They could not call.”
The “launch in,” located off Second Street, is about 33 miles to the Princess Anne landing as the river winds, according to Garner.
“They were half way there at Buck Landing, that’s about 12 to 15 miles, I would say from where they launched,” he said.
River travelers may run into obstacles like fallen trees or stumps that can delay travel time, especially if new to the route, Garner said.
There are ways to avoid the potential for disaster. Garner suggests adventurers plan their route ahead of time, check the weather and bring lots of water and snacks with them.
“You want to have a float plan, to let people know your route — make sure someone knows what you are doing,” Garner said. “This will help rescue get to you faster, and prevent them from putting themselves in unnecessary danger.”
A float plan should include the vessel, with any identifying features such as length and make; the detailed route, including departure and expected return time; the name, address and phone number of each person on board; and an emergency contact.
“They can get all of this information by either calling us or stopping by,” Garner said. “This will help us.”
A state Highway Patrol helicopter was en route but was called off when the family members were located safe and unharmed, Sealey said.
Transportation was provided by local officials who took them to their loved ones.
“We reunited them with moms and wives,” Sealey said. “It all worked out — a happy ending.”
Reach Annick Joseph at [email protected]