ALTON, Iowa -- Wearily, Tim Ackerman half-climbed, half-slid down the steep, grassy bank into Willow Creek.
Once in the muddy water, he repeated the slow, short steps so similar to the hundreds he'd taken over the previous two days while hoping to find his 4-year-old nephew, Breiton Ackerman.
"We've been walking a lot of creek," Ackerman said Wednesday afternoon.
Up on the banks crisscrossed with muddy tire tracks, Breiton's grandfather Glenn De Jong continued to wonder how a little boy could remain hidden in a creek so small. The water barely made it over the tops of De Jong's knee-high boots. He could probably jump across it if he wanted to.
"It's the littlest creek you ever could see. How could anyone drown in it," De Jong said just before his cell phone rang, a call from a volunteer downstream updating him on the search there.
Since Sunday afternoon, family, friends and volunteers have combed every inch of Willow Creek near Alton to the point where it dumps into the Floyd River near Le Mars roughly 17 miles away. Searchers have taken boats down the Floyd River to Sioux City. Divers have explored the spot where the Floyd dumps into the Missouri River.
So far, no Breiton.
It took no more than 30 seconds for a routine family fishing trip on De Jong's farm to turn into a tragedy.
De Jong, Breiton's dad Brad Ackerman, and other family members were sitting on a concrete bridge, watching fish swim upstream in the creek winding through an empty cornfield. Mostly, the fish were slapping against the side of the bridge, missing the metal culverts that ran beneath it.
"We call them catfish. We take them home and feed 'em to the cats," De Jong said.
The family was facing south when Breiton declared he was done fishing and walked behind De Jong to the north side of the bridge, where the water was backed up. Soon, Breiton was missing. The family could only assume he fell into the creek, although no one saw it happen.
"Of course it was bedlam then," De Jong said.
By Sunday evening, a backhoe had torn out the bridge. The culverts, which over the years had become bowed in the middle, were removed and searched with the hope Breiton's body was trapped inside.
On Monday and Tuesday, as many as 400 volunteers turned out to help find the boy. By Wednesday, 40 to 50 bundled up in hip waders and rain ponchos to brave the cool, rainy conditions.
"Brad (Breiton's father and De Jong's son-in-law) is out here on a flat-bottomed boat. My daughter's home making funeral arrangements," De Jong said.
Authorities suspended the search today to allow the family to take part in memorial arrangements. Meanwhile, the Sioux County Sheriff's Office has asked volunteers to stay away from the area, including the creek running south to county road L-14, so that dogs being used in the search will have the best conditions possible when the search resumes Friday.
The disappearance still puzzles experts, Sioux County Sheriff Dan Altena said. Normally, drowning victims surface within 48 to 72 hours, a time frame that passed Wednesday afternoon.
"What I think we're dealing with the rescuers is frustration," Altena said. "Experts say the body should be nearby."
Foul play is not suspected, the sheriff said.
The creek itself is no help. Zig-zagging through corn and soybean fields, it's filled with concrete chunks, trees, fences and other obstacles that could trap a body beneath the water, which now rushes faster in the wake of recent rains. Volunteers have gone up and down the channel, probing the creekbed with long PVC pipes and tree limbs, trying to find any object that doesn't feel like riverbank. Dogs trained to find dead bodies have found a few areas of interest, but no Breiton.
"He was just a 4-year-old boy," De Jong said describing his grandson. "He was a roly-poly little guy."
Just before Tim Ackerman slipped down the wet grass into the creek, he nodded his head slowly, accepting two news reporters' hopes that Breiton would be found soon.
"So do we," Ackerman said. "At least we'll know where he's at."
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