One angler from West Sacramento found that the relaxing fishing trip he had planned for quickly turned into a wilderness survival test. On August 6, Mike Vilhauer, 58, traveled to Lower Sunset Lake in California’s sparsley populated Alpine County for some fishing. According to ABC News, Vilhauer had set up camp near the lake with all his supplies when he figured that the fish were not biting. Hoping to remedy that, Vilhauer took up a butterfly net and wandered into the forest to look for some crickets as bait.
“I was just zigzagging up and down the mountain,” the angler said.
Vilhauer says he expected to only be gone for about 15 minutes, so he brought almost nothing with him except the net and his cell phone. Instead, the bait search took several hours and he noticed the skies getting darker the longer he walked. By nightfall, the angler came to the dreadful conclusion that he was lost and without a cell phone signal. Vilhauer attempted to return to the lake and his precious cache of supplies, but wandering about in the dark only caused him to become further disoriented.
“Every time I’d walk up one ridge and go up the mountain, I’d think, ‘There’s the lake.’ And there would be nothing,” Vilhauer told CBS13.
The fisherman described the first night in the forest as bitterly cold, and he decided to stop and make camp rather than continue stumbling in the darkness. Vilhauer laid under a pine tree and used willow branches to keep himself warm.
“I hadn’t slept at all,” he said. “It was cold and I just tried to keep moving around. It rained every night.”
For the next several days Vilhauer alternated between trying to find his way back to lake and fulfilling the bare necessities of survival. The lost angler drank from puddles and chewed on dandelions, all the while trying to get to a higher vantage point. Two days in, Vilhauer found a stream and began following it, only to find that it came to a dead end. At some point, the angler ran across a wolverine, a large deer herd, and saw bear tracks. By the time four days passed, he noticed search and rescue helicopters flying overhead but none stopped.
“It was a big rush, and then the letdown. A big rush, and the letdown,” Vilhauer recalled as helicopters came and went.
He had even built an eight-foot-tall message out of pine needles spelling the world “HELP.” Disheartened, Vilhauer says he began writing a farewell letter to his family on a piece of bark.
On the fifth day, one of the helicopter pilots noticed Vilhauer’s pine needle sign. It turns out that the search for the missing angler had led in a massive rescue effort, the largest that local rescuers have seen this year. Vilhauer was given a small meal and transported back to civilization, where he greeted several of the search teams that had been combing the area for him. Despite five days with little food and cover, Vilhauer suffered no serious injuries and was able to move into a hotel after a quick check-up. He was later told that he was only four miles from the lake when he was rescued. And the kicker?
“That’s when they told me, by-the-way, there’s no fish in that lake,” said Vilhauer.
Despite his ordeal, the angler said he looks forwards to planning another fishing trip. Next time though, he will be better prepared—and likely bring someone else along, as well.
You can watch an interview with Vilhauer below: