A 72-year-old San Francisco man who went missing during a hunting trip in the Mendocino National Forest was found alive after surviving 18 days alone in the woods by eating what he could find, including squirrels, lizards and a snake.
Gene Penaflor’s family gathered over the weekend at Ukiah Valley Medical Center after learning that a group of hunters had found him Saturday and carried him out of the woods on a makeshift stretcher.
“He’s good,” his youngest son, Jeremy, said with a smile. “He’s just like he was when I saw him last, except his beard grew.”
His family had been staying in Covelo since Penaflor went missing.
“He goes hunting every year, and he comes home every year,” daughter-in-law
Deborah Penaflor said Monday outside Gene Penaflor’s small home in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood. “We’d gotten a little complacent that he would always come back.”
A four-day search for Penaflor included searchers, scent-tracking dogs and equipment from 15 neighboring agencies, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said.
“There were no clues, we had thoroughly searched the area, and there was a weather front coming in,” said Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office detective Andrew Porter of the reasons the search was called off.
The weather advisory included snow flurries in the area, which sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet.
Jeremy Penaflor said he saw his dad long enough Saturday to hug him. The medical staff at UVMC reported Gene Penaflor’s vital signs were good.
Porter said Penaflor was “laughing and joking around” and described him as “very upbeat” despite the ordeal, which began Sept. 24 when Penaflor and a hunting partner set off at about 8:30 a.m. from a hunting camp a few miles north of Monkey Rock in the Mendocino National Forest.
They walked into the Yuki Wilderness down two separate ridges, he said — a technique Penaflor’s son said his father and hunting partner use to hunt deer.
The men planned to hunt for a couple of hours, meet for lunch and resume the hunt on the west side of Road M1, Porter said.
They normally didn’t venture from base more than a quarter-mile to half-mile, but for unknown reasons, Penaflor walked 2ï»¿1/2 miles from camp that day, he said.
The terrain, Porter said, is “very steep, rocky and treacherous” and is prone to runoffs.
Penaflor fell and lost consciousness. He woke to foggy conditions and a cut on his chin. Afraid of infection, Penaflor opted to stay where he was near a water source for the night, Porter said.
That night he built a fire and set up a makeshift shelter of leaves underneath and above him for warmth. He woke to more fog and zero visibility again the next morning, and on Wednesday afternoon, Penaflor saw a helicopter.
He put damp leaves on his fire to send a smoke signal, but the helicopter’s crew didn’t see him. Penaflor saw a helicopter the next day and he tried again to flag it down with the same result, Porter said.
“I asked him why he didn’t just walk back up the hill, and he said he didn’t have enough energy to hike back up,” Porter said.
Gene Penaflor had a lighter, a knife and water with him when he went hunting, but Deborah Penaflor said the knife and water bottle got lost in the fall. But he had is rifle.
The Mendocino County Search and Rescue efforts to find Penaflor started Sept. 25 after an initial misunderstanding about where he went missing. The search was called off Sept. 28, according to Porter.
In the days that followed, Penaflor ate squirrels, lizards, a snake, berries and algae he knew to be safe. He saw deer but didn’t shoot them because he lacked the energy to do so, Porter said.
“He knew at some point he was going to die, but he figured he’d last as long as he could,” Porter said.
Penaflor conserved what food he could kill and cook, keeping his nighttime fire’s embers hot under leaves during the day, conserving bullets and staying hydrated until he saw what he described as “an army of hunters” Saturday and flagged them down with smoke. They made a stretcher from tree branches and their coats, Porter said, and carried him to safety.
“It was hard on the family,” Jeremy Penaflor said. “I knew my dad would do what he needed to do to survive, even if it meant eating squirrels or the occasional bug.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Tiffany Revelle can be reached at email@example.com or at Twitter/tiffanyrevelle.