72-year-old man survives 19 days, eating lizards, squirrel

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Gene Penaflor

(CNN) — When he came to, Gene Penaflor knew he had to do something. He didn’t know how long he’d been unconscious. Just that there he was in the middle of the wilderness, a man of 72, who lost his way while hunting deer.

He had to quickly figure out how to survive, what to eat and drink and how to stay warm.

And for the next three weeks, Penaflor did just that: subsisting on a diet of lizards, frogs and squirrels.

Penaflor was separated from his hunting buddy on September 24. At first, he tried find his way on foot out of the Mendocino National Forest, a vast nature preserve in northern California. But he was disoriented and quickly gave up.

He stayed put in hope that someone would find him. In his 19 days cut off from humanity, it snowed several times, and temperatures dropped to 25 degrees Fahrenheit some nights.

Then help came.

Penaflor made it to a hospital in the town of Ukriah on the edge of the forest, where his family surrounded his bed. Doctors checked him over and released him. He is back home, his son Jeremy told CNN.

“He’s good. He’s hanging in there. He looks like nothing changed except he grew a beard.”

Lost

Flank the deer on two sides; no matter where it runs, your buddy or you are pretty sure to bag it.

It’s a common hunting strategy. But it got Penaflor separated from his hunting partner on September 24.

They had split up at their base camp, walking over separate ridges, and were going to meet up down the path a few hours later for lunch. Penaflor never showed.

A day later, his hunting buddy reported him missing to the Mendocino County Sheriff, who sent out a search party a day later assembled from nearly two dozen country and state law enforcement offices.

After scouring the mountain range on foot and with rescue dogs, and in the air for four days, they found no clues leading to Penaflor.

A hefty storm blew in, and they suspended the search.

The accident

Penaflor had walked out into the woods much farther than he had planned, his son said.

He slipped on the steep slope and hit his head. It knocked him out cold, and he has no idea for how long.

He still had his hunting rifle, but he told his son that he didn’t have the strength to hunt a deer. “He told me it was mainly in survival mode. He was trying to save energy,” the son said.

Instead, Penaflor focused on small game, foraged for algae in a stream and drank water from a creek. To stay dry, he crouched under a fallen tree, and to keep warm, he made a fire and packed dry leaves and grass around his body.

He never stopped trying, and his family did not give up hope. “We knew he was out there,” said Jeremy Penaflor.

The rescue

The search party went back out on Saturday to look for the 72-year-old again, this time it was about half the size of the original one. But someone beat them to Penaflor.

A hunter called the sheriff’s office in the morning, saying he and his large group of friends could hear a man crying for help from down in a valley.

The cell phone connection was bad and dropped out again and again, before deputies could note his location, the sherriff’s office said. They instructed him to call 911, and the operator locked in his GPS coordinates.

Penaflor’s cries led the hunting party to him. They cut poles from trees and affixed their coats to them to fashion a makeshift stretcher to carry him out on.

Rescuers met up with the group hours later, as they heaved him up a steep hill. They called a helicopter to ferry him to Ukiah Valley Medical Center.

Hugs and tears

When his family saw him, no one spoke, Jeremy Penaflor said. “Just hugs. And we were in tears.”

He released a photograph to the press, showing his father in a hospital bed, smiling and giving a thumbs-up.

No more hunting for now, the son said.

“If he decides to hunt in a couple of years, that’s fine. But we joked around, and said let’s make it a camping trip.”

If he goes out again, his son wants to be with him.

CNN’s Dave Alsup contributed to this report.