In order to survive 19 days in wilderness of California’s Mendocino National Forest, hunter Gene Penaflor needed more than his rifle; he required a keen knowledge of survival in the back country. The 72-year-old man and his hunting companion came to Mendocino on September 24 in search of deer but Penaflor became separated and lost in the vast forest. Penaflor managed to survive more than two weeks in Mendocino before he was rescued by hunters and carried to a nearby town.
“He’s good. He’s hanging in there. He looks like nothing changed except he grew a beard,” his son Jeremy joyously told CNN.
Penaflor had gotten sidetracked soon after he left base camp. After slipping and suffering an impact to his head, the hunter never made the rendezvous with his companion. Instead, while the other hunter was busy informing the authorities that Penaflor had been lost in Mendocino, the 72-year-old spent the time unconscious on the forest floor. Penaflor says he has no recollection of how long he had been knocked out.
The hunter was quick to assess his situation and laid out the supplies he had with him. Penaflor still had his rifle, seven rounds, a lighter, some hunting gear, and easy access to water. According to the Ukiah Daily Journal, Penaflor woke up with a cut on his chin and kept it clean with water from a nearby stream. Otherwise, the situation was disastrous.
The entire area was covered in a thick fog that hindered rescue efforts and Penaflor described the terrain as “very steep, rocky, and treacherous.” The hunter set to building a fire and a simple shelter made of leaves. He did not have the energy to do much else. The next day Penaflor saw a helicopter and attempted to signal it by throwing damp leaves into his fire. The rescue crew did not see him and every other effort to find the hunter also returned little before the search was halted by inclement weather. For 19 days, Penaflor endured snow, low temperatures, and the ever-present risk of exposure.
The hunter knew he lacked the strength to stalk and hunt deer, but small game was readily available. Penaflor sustained himself on squirrels, lizards, and other tiny critters that he cooked over a fire. To change up his diet, the man occasionally scrounged for berries and algae down by the stream. Penaflor said he even saw a passing deer or two, but passed on shooting them as he needed to conserve ammo and the act of tracking or dressing a deer would be too taxing.
At last, on October 12, Penaflor could hear movement and voices from deep in the forest. He used his remaining energy to cry out for help and alerted a large hunting party to his location. The hunters quickly fashioned a stretcher by cutting poles from nearby trees and strapping their jackets to it. Although phone reception was mixed at best, one of the hunters managed to get a call out to emergency services. A helicopter was dispatched to bring Penaflor to the Ukiah Valley Medical Center, where he has since fully recovered.
Penaflor is now home and physically unchanged from the experience. His son says he has learned a lot from his ordeal.
“It was hard on the family,” Jeremy Penaflor told the Ukiah Daily Journal. “I knew my dad would do what he needed to do to survive, even if it meant eating squirrels or the occasional bug.”