A 72-year-old San Francisco man who went missing during a hunting trip in the Mendocino National Forest was found alive and well after surviving 18 days alone in the woods.
Gene Penaflor's family gathered Saturday afternoon at Ukiah Valley Medical Center after learning that a group of hunters had found him earlier that day and carried him out of the woods on a makeshift stretcher to safety.
"He's good," said his youngest son, Jeremy, with a smile. "He's just like he was when I saw him last, except his beard grew."
Mendocino County Sheriff's Office detective Andrew 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 in the Mendocino National Forest.
The two men had planned to hunt for a couple of hours, meet for lunch and then resume the hunt, according to Porter. They normally didn't venture from base more than a quarter-mile to half-mile, but for unknown reasons, Penaflor had walked two and a half miles from camp that day, he said.
The terrain in the area is "very steep, rocky and treacherous," Porter said, and is prone to runoffs.
Penaflor fell and lost consciousness. He woke to find fog surrounding him and a cut on his chin, and, afraid of infection, he opted to stay where he was near a water source for the night, according to Porter.
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, according to Porter.
"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.
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, according to Porter.
"He knew at some point he was going to die, but he figured he'd last as long as he could," Porter said.
And survive Penaflor did, conserving 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 from his fire. They made a stretcher from tree branches and their coats, according to Porter, and carried him to safety.
"He told me he learned a lot about himself through this," Porter said.
Allman thanked the many agencies and the people in them who responded to Mendocino County to help in the search.
"It was hard on the family," Jeremy said. "I knew my dad would do what he needed to do to survive, even if it meant eating squirrels or the occasional bug."
"I had faith that my dad was still alive," Jeremy said. "With the knowledge that he had, and what he knew how to do, 14 days was nothing to him. I think after 14 days, I would have freaked out."