By Karen Brooks
(Reuters) – A 72-year-old California deer hunter was recovering Monday after surviving on squirrels and packing leaves around him for warmth for nearly three weeks while he was lost and alone in the snowy wilderness, authorities said.
Gene Penaflor was discovered by hunters on Saturday after 19 days in the Mendocino National Forest in the Coastal Mountain Range of northwestern California, according to a report by the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.
“This is a miracle,” reads a message on a website dedicated to the search, www.genepenaflor.com, updated with a family photo at a local hospital over the weekend.
The Mendocino National Forest is run by the U.S. Forest Service and has been closed due to the government shutdown, according to the forest website. An outgoing voicemail message by a forest spokesperson said she had been furloughed.
Penaflor, described on the site as an avid hunter with more than 30 years of wilderness experience, had been hunting with a friend when they became separated on September 24, the report said.
After four days of searching by at least 18 agencies from more than a dozen counties, the official search was suspended because searchers could find no clues to his locations and because storms were coming.
On Saturday, 19 days after Penaflor disappeared, the search was resumed – but it was a group of hunters who heard Penaflor’s cries for help and eventually found him in a canyon in the 53,887-acre Yuki Wilderness area of the national forest.
He told officials he had walked too far away from the road, fell and hit his head, and was knocked unconscious. When he regained consciousness he was disoriented, surrounded by thick fog in a forest where the temperature dipped to 25 degrees.
“He was able to make a fire and warm himself with leaves and grasses that he packed around his body,” the report said. “On days when it rained or snowed he was able to crawl under a large log to stay dry. He was able to kill and eat several squirrels in the area and there was plenty of water in a nearby drainage to sustain himself.”
Penaflor is recovering well, according to social media postings by his son, Jeremy Penaflor.
“My dad was found alive and well!” the younger Penaflor said on Twitter on Saturday. “God is good.”