Derrick James Engebretson

Friday, March 03, 2006


Posted: 12/13/02 8:22 am
Oregonian Archives

December 11, 1998


Summary: The lost boy's father crawls and digs for signs of his son as the fifth day's search ends
Robert K. Engebretson clawed past snow-covered boulders Thursday like an animal seeking shelter, forcing his flashlight into child-sized crevices beneath a mountain road for signs of his missing son.

He hoped with each flicker of the light to find 8-year-old Derrick Engebretson, who wandered off Saturday while they hunted for Christmas trees in this snow-blanketed paradise 20 miles south of Crater Lake National Park.
Off in the distance, the muffled voice of a man searching for Derrick called to another searcher.

"Was he wearing boots?"

"Yeah," came the other voice. "Little snow boots."

One of the searchers stepped into view then, quickly spying what looked like a child-sized footprint in the snow atop a rock. Engebretson, a veteran bear hunter accustomed to following prints in the powder, trudged wearily toward the others.

Stalking through ankle-twisting briars and manzanita, Engebretson quickly picked up the trail of the tiny feet. He worked the tracks downhill into the forest, toward the banks of Upper Klamath Lake, but then stalled.

The prints soon petered out, and another fallen ray of hope punched Engebretson in the gut. By nightfall Thursday, he and the other searchers were no closer to finding Derrick than when they started late Saturday afternoon.

With helicopters thumping overhead, snowmobiles screaming through the woods and tracking dogs howling, searchers collected by campfires and spoke aloud their hopes of finding Derrick alive. But the chances of doing so grew dimmer as the sun set on the fifth full day.

Standing in the smoking warmth of a wood fire earlier in the day, Robert Engebretson had clung to a father's prayers.

"I hope he's still alive," he said.

His eyes clouded.

"At least I gotta" -- the emotion knotted his throat -- "just gotta find him."

In one sense, the many hunters searching for Derrick are after one of their own.

Derrick Engebretson, a spirited third-grader from Bonanza, has spent much of his young life tromping through the woods with his father; his mother, Lori; his maternal grandfather, Ben Davis; and other family members.

The family lives on forested land about five miles northeast of Bonanza. There, the 4-foot-9, 85-pound Derrick has distinguished himself as an energetic mushroom picker, a boy who can bend to the forest floor hours on end for choice morels.

He has tagged along on countless hunts with his family, which enjoys a rich tradition of hunting black-tailed deer, bobcat and black bear. Derrick is happiest when taking part in the hunt, and the spindly youth possesses a natural gift for moving swiftly through the forest.

"Ever since he was a baby, he's been out in the woods hunting and stuff," Engebretson said. Derrick's mom concurred. Lori Engebretson recalled how she had bundled him up, layer by layer, and slung him into a belly sack for his first bear hunt in the cold woods. Derrick was 7 days old.

As a baby, Derrick had an odd habit of grunting. It sounded to some of his relatives like a bear, which is precisely how he got his nickname: "Bear Boy."

The youngster is said to be fanatical about the outdoors. He has ridden his mountain bike, built forts in the woods near home and played every sport available to him. His parents said he enjoys baseball, basketball, soccer, football and taking a few swings with a golf club.

The windshield of the Engebretsons' Dodge van bears a crack from one of Derrick's errant shots.

About the only time you could find Derrick indoors has been at night, where he frequently is found watching television shows about animals, wild or domestic. He kept several lizards for a time and still has three dogs waiting for him at home.

Derrick owns two BB guns -- Lori Engebretson said a third already has been bought as a Christmas present -- and other toys prized by older children. But Derrick has always had a way of reminding people that he still is a little boy.

He has a large collection of stuffed animals and loves spending time snuggling in his grandfather Davis' lap.

When Derrick's dad started working a $14.85-an-hour graveyard shift at the Jeld-Wen of Oregon lumber mill April 1987, the youngster had become an almost nightly habitu of his parents' king-sized bed.

"He always slept with (his stuffed animals)," said Lori Engebretson, who manages a Klamath Falls craft business. "Even when he crawled into bed with me, he had six or seven."

There are two things that scare Derrick, his mother said.

Darkness and cougars.

"He's told us that if he ever got lost, he would find a tree," said his mother, who spent the first four nights of her vigil here watching through the window of a pickup, waiting for her son to walk out of the woods.

"I think he's going to make it."

Last Saturday started out as a simple outing to chop down three Christmas trees.

Derrick, his dad, and paternal grandfather, 64-year-old Robert O. "Bob" Engebretson, had bought permits for three trees -- one for each family and another for a friend.

They drove to Rocky Point about 2 p.m. and hiked into the woods together. They climbed maybe 150 yards into the woods, heading toward a nearby ridge. Derrick carried the hatchet as they moved through the forest together. Soon, however, the boy and his grandfather found themselves falling behind Derrick's dad.

Derrick had an annoying habit of wandering off, Bob Engebretson would later recall. "Footloose and fancy free," he said. "Wild."

It became hard to look for a tree and also keep an eye out for Derrick, who kept saying he wanted to catch up with his father, the grandfather said.

About the fifth time the youngster asked, roughly at 3 p.m., Bob Engebretson acquiesced. And as the elderly Engebretson moved through the snow-covered woods, he discovered his grandson was following perfectly in his father's footprints.

So he turned around.

When Derrick's dad and grandfather met up on the road below a short time later, Robert Engebretson was the first to speak.

"Where's Derrick?"

"I thought he was with you," Bob Engebretson said.

"No, I told him to stay with you."

Darkness and snow soon fell over the duo as they frantically called for the boy in what became a whiteout. Within hours, Klamath County authorities jumped into the search.

What Derrick's family thought they needed was a good tracker, and the best that Robert Engebretson had ever known -- his father-in-law, Ben Davis -- was hunting black bear in Northern California. A series of emergency calls found Davis on the CB of his pickup as his dogs hunted in the woods.

Davis raced back to join in the hunt for his grandson, leaving in the woods three of his dogs that later were retrieved by his youngest son.

As Klamath County's professional rescuers set up their own tents, Derrick's family members and friends crowded together at a roadside encampment in view of his last known whereabouts.

The community church in Bonanza donated stoves and a trailer. The fire department sent over a gas-powered generator. Food came in by the box load. Searchers have come from throughout the Northwest, some with no connection to the Engebretsons but a sense of tragedy.

They have worked the woods night and day since then, hoping for the best.

By Thursday afternoon, with a campfire crackling and foil-wrapped potatoes long-burned to a crisp, they stood in the sunlight and comforted one another and complained that the professional rescuers -- now set up two miles down the road -- had not handled the search well.

Robert Engebretson was incredulous that Klamath County Sheriff Carl Burkhart had turned away some would-be rescuers who he thought were ill-equipped and that helicopters were unable to fly during some days of the search this week.

When three helicopters did roar overhead Thursday -- some using infrared gear -- the effort only made Bob Engebretson angrier.

"They're just burning up fuel," he said. "Now I'm afraid it's too damned late."


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