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Merrell footwear founder's wife, step-grandson still missing in Grand Canyon

This undated photo provided by Mark McOmie shows Jackson Standefer. Authorities searched Grand Canyon National Park on Monday, April 17, 2017, for eighth-grader Standefer and his step-grandmother who were swept away as they tried to cross a creek during a family trip in a remote part of the park. Chief Ranger Matt Vandzura says the two lost their footing Saturday. (Mark McOmie via AP)

(KUTV) The remote area at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where searchers are in a fourth day trying to find a missing woman and a teenager, attracts only about 3,500 backpackers each year, according to the National Park Service.

Tapeats Creek, where Lou-Ann Merrell and her step-grandson, Jackson Standefer lost their footing Saturday during a family trip, is not particularly difficult to hike, said Chris Forsyth, president of the Grand Canyon Hikers & Backpackers Association board. But heavy water flowing through the creek can make it challenging, he said.

Merrell is the wife of Randy Merrell, who helped found the Merrell Boot Co.

The pair lost their footing Saturday and fell into the water during a family trip with Randy Merrell and the boy's mother in a remote area of the Arizona park.

The area has a more distinct geology than most of the park and attracts a fair number of visitors but is not as popular with tourists are other spots, like Havasupai Falls. Still, Forsyth, who says he has hiked that area five times, said a visit there calls for a multiple-day backpacking trip and at least some experience in hiking. He said his first trip through the canyon was at Tapeats Creek.

"The rock that forms the canyon at Tapeats Creek is a particular layer that isn't found everywhere in the Grand Canyon. It gives it a more unique sense of beauty," Forsyth said.

An intense search for Merrell and 14-year-old Standefer resumed Tuesday, National Park Service spokeswoman Robin Martin said.

The search includes three ground teams consisting of about 20 people total, a National Park Service helicopter, a drone and an inflatable motor raft that was flown into the canyon. Search crews are looking within a mile and a mile and half of where the hikers were last seen, as well as where the creek meets the Colorado River.

"We're really just looking in the water and areas where someone maybe would have been able to get out," Martin said.

Martin said about 3,500 people got permits in 2015 to camp in the general area where the two hikers went missing, the latest readily available data. About 41,000 total people that year got permits to backpack in the Grand Canyon in total.

Mark McOmie, the boy's uncle, said the Merrells are avid hikers and know the area well. He said Lou-Ann and Randy Merrell, who was also on the trip, live in Vernal, a city in eastern Utah. McOmie was not on the trip.

Lou-Ann Merrell is "a very experienced backpacker," McOmie said. "If they can get to a spot where they cannot be in the water and stay warm, she's got the skills needed to get them through it. The odds aren't great."

McOmie said searchers have found their backpacks with belongings inside, which the family has interpreted with mixed feelings. He said it looks as if they were able to get their backpacks off.

"The bad part is that they don't have their gear," McOmie said.

The Merrells, Standefer and the boy's mother were on a path known as Tapeats Trail when the pair fell, authorities said.

The park service said it's too early to determine what went wrong. No rain or flash flooding was reported in the area, and it was not known whether the water level was higher than usual in Tapeats Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River that runs through the Arizona landmark.

Creeks in the canyon often see higher water levels in the spring as snow melts. Forsyth said that he hasn't visited Tapeats Creek this year but has been to other parts of the park, where he's noticed more water than usual, he said.

The park service describes conditions in the area on its website, warning that melting snow or heavy rain can make crossing the creek impossible.

The North Rim, an area visited only by 10 percent of Grand Canyon visitors, has rapidly changing weather and visitors should be prepared for heat, cold, rain, wind or snow, the park service says.

The McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, said Jackson is an eighth-grade student at the all-boys school.

A call to Merrell Footlab for comment wasn't immediately returned.

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Jaques Billeaud reported from Phoenix and Sheila Burke reported from Nashville, Tennessee.

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