The True Story Of The 8-Year-Old Who Spent Nearly A Week Lost In The Woods

In early June of 2022, 3-year-old Ryker Webb was discovered deep in the Montana woods alive and well after being declared missing for 48 hours. Occupants of a cabin found the boy in the shed behind their house while on vacation and contacted the police immediately. Ryker had taken shelter in the small wooden structure in order to shield himself from the elements and any hostile wildlife, as ABC News reports. Even in the 21st century, when technology and tracking tactics are at a zenith, it's still possible to fall off the map entirely. 

Circle back to just shy of a century ago and imagine what it was like when someone went missing in the woods. No location sharing, no GPS, no drones ... just a vigilant swarm of police and community members, some bloodhounds, and a fierce determination to find the poor soul inexplicably led astray. Maybe you've heard of Katherine Van Alst, maybe not. In 1946, the 8-year-old Alabama resident disappeared without a trace and was recovered six days later by members of a search party deep in the forest. The story of her miraculous propensity for survival made headlines all those years ago and stands as a testament to just how easily someone can get swallowed up by the elements and disappear into the unforgiving void of nature (via Journal Online). 

Katherine Van Alst went missing while camping with her family

While on vacation with her family at Devil's Den State Park in West Fork, Arkansas, Katherine Van Alst wandered away from her brothers while they were playing near a creek. It seemed to happen in the blink of an eye, as if a hole in the center of the earth formed and swallowed her into its gullet. Despite the helpless cries of her family who were desperately trying to ascertain her whereabouts, she failed to respond and had vanished entirely. Park officials were contacted and a vigorous hunt for the missing little girl commenced. The entirety of Devil's Den State Park covers a vast expanse of 2,500 acres, so the search soon became virtually aimless. How a mere child of 8 could wander off into nothingness while in the immediate company of her own family became a puzzling mystery that nobody could solve (per Journal Online).

At the time of her disappearance, Katherine Van Alst was clad in nothing more than a bathing suit, so she was dangerously exposed to the elements and was at high risk of being harmed in various ways. Devil's Den State Park is occupied by a dense population of wildlife, harbors various rocks and cliffs, and is complete with all the makings of nature in its unabashed form, according to All Trails, so the hope of her safe recovery was rapidly waning as the days went on. Then, as quickly as she was gone, she was there again (per Online Journal).

Katherine Van Alst was found six days later

The Pittsburgh-Post Gazette (via reported that Peter Chaddick, a member of the search party, was near a cave when he heard a frail voice respond to his call. "Here I am," the little girl declared softly. Alas, six days later, Katherine Van Alst had been found about seven miles from her family's campsite, Journal Online.  

Searchers reported that the child was covered in various insect bites and was still wearing the bathing suit she had on at the time of her disappearance. Luckily, she'd suffered no serious injury or malnourishment and managed to sustain herself on berries and drank from small water deposits located throughout the territory. When asked how she managed to stray so far from her family's campsite and remain missing for nearly a week, she replied, "I just couldn't find it."

Van Alst's father, John Van Alst, had been tirelessly searching for his daughter for three days along with the rest of the rescue troupe when the sheriff told him he needed to take a break. That's why he didn't hear about his daughter's miraculous recovery until a day later when one of his associates noticed a morning newspaper clipping reporting her found. Law enforcement had been unable to reach him. The Pittsburgh-Post Gazette (via reported the little girl "gave her haggard daddy a big hug and kiss" upon their reunion.