BIG CANYON — George Mancuso loved the Grand Canyon.
The 46-year-old photographer spent years hiking in the Canyon, seeking that perfect shot, getting close to nature.
A flash flood ripped through this area at the time George Mancuso and Linda Brehmer disappeared. The waters of the Little Colorado River are typically blue-green and clear. But above, searchers found only muddy, high water.
He had a particular love for the Little Colorado River area and that’s where he headed with 51-year-old Linda Brehmer a couple of weeks ago.
Mancuso and Brehmer parked at the Salt Trail Canyon trailhead about 14 miles west of The Gap. They camped at a spot a few miles away near the confluence of Little Colorado River Gorge and Salt Trail Canyon.
In her journal, Brehmer wrote on Aug. 7 about plans to hike the mile-and-a-half to Emerald Pool.
But monsoon rains hit the area hard and it’s believed that Mancuso and Brehmer were caught in a flash flood at Big Canyon.
On Sunday morning, a man’s body was found by a National Park Service river patrol trip in shallow water at the confluence of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River near river mile 61.5 in Grand Canyon National Park.
The previous Thursday morning, a woman’s body was found by searchers at the confluence of Big Canyon and the Little Colorado River not far from their campsite.
As of Monday, the bodies had not been positively identified, but they are likely the missing couple.
"For those of us who are searching, it’s scared to think that if this happened to George, it could happen to any of us," said Ken Phillips of GCNP’s search and rescue team. "I’ve known George for many decades and he has more experience in the Canyon than any single person who works here."
Authorities first learned about the couple being overdue on Aug. 18 when one of Brehmer’s two sons called the National Park Service late that afternoon. The man reported that his mother and Mancuso were nearly 10 days overdue from a hike, expected back on Aug. 8. They were last seen on July 31.
The son did not know exactly where the couple had gone, only saying they planned a trip to the South Rim. Officials found no permits had been obtained by the couple to give clues as to their whereabouts.
But Mancuso was known to have a preference for the Little Colorado and Phillips said that was the first place to check.
"Because he’s hiked quite a bit up here, Ken knew where he liked to hike," said Maureen Oltrogge, public affairs officer for GCNP. "So he focused on an area where he did a lot of hiking. They found the campsite rather quickly ... probably within the first few hours. That’s amazing since there was no starting point."
The vehicle was found Aug. 19 at the Salt Trail Canyon trailhead on the Navajo Indian Reservation.
Later in the day, searchers found the abandoned camp.
"From the camp, it’s obvious most of his equipment is there and there was also a personal journal with the last entry being Aug. 7," Phillips said. "It’s possible they were just on a day hike. What we believe is they went to a site at Emerald Pool in Big Canyon."
Mancuso was called by some as an "extreme hiker." He began a series of extensive inner-canyon hikes in the mid-1970s. In January 1986, he began his business, "Granite Visions," in an effort to capture various views of the Canyon between rim and river on film. Ninety percent of his work was shot below the rim.
The search and recovery effort, a joint operation by the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office and the National Park Service, along with help from the Department of Public Safety, had gone on for days.
Early on, the majority of the search was conducted from the air, although there was some ground searching. The area is very rugged and there are no established trails.
Later, more searching could be done on the ground and on river patrols.
Authorities contacted the U.S. Geological Survey and it was determined that on the afternoon of Aug. 7, "there was a high-water event that had occurred," Phillips said.
Searchers ran into several concerns while conducting the operation. The search-and-rescue helicopters had various challenges to consider and there was very poor radio communication. The usual clear, blue-green waters of the Little Colorado were now higher than usual and very muddy. As a result, searchers could not see below the surface.
On Thursday, searchers concentrated on debris piles at Big Canyon. The woman’s body was found there about 100 yards below Emerald Pool, where there are steep cliff walls that would allow no escape in the event of a flash flood.
Bad weather hampered search efforts. But on Thursday, things cleared up and a more thorough search could be conducted.
Besides the body, a T-shirt believed to belong to Mancuso was found in the debris. Film taken from the abandoned campsite was developed and one photo showed Mancuso wearing the same shirt.
Sunday at about 8:30 a.m., the man’s body was found. Both were taken to the Coconino County Medical Examiner’s Office and then to Phoenix for identification.
It’s not the first time that a search has been on for Mancuso. Last year, officials began a search for him after he was reported overdue from a trip near Desert View.
Phillips said it was possible he was hiking out through the Little Colorado River, but after he failed to show up for an appointment in Flagstaff, a search began. Mancuso had hitched a ride on a river trip and camped at New Hance Trail, later making it out safely.
Mancuso’s most recent trip with Brehmer could have had something to do with a photography project he was working on called "La Femme de Grand Canyon."
On his business Web site, Mancuso wrote that he was seeking "outdoor, athletic women and models to assist me in backpacking and photography trips inside Grand Canyon. The theme and purpose is to capture on film a unique portfolio of prints displaying the sensual, artistic, natural and spiritual expressions of the female form within a beautiful outdoor setting."