Hunter, 72, survives 19 days in N. California forest

After blacking out in fall, Gene Penaflor set up camp and waited for help

SAN FRANCISCO — He shot squirrels in the head so their bodies would be intact for meals.

He caught frogs, lizards and a two-foot brown snake, killing them with a rock and toasting them thoroughly so he would not get salmonella.

Each night, before burying himself under rotting leaves, he carefully covered his fire with gravel to prevent it from spreading.

Gene Penaflor made it through 19 days lost in the wilds of Northern California's Mendocino National Forest by going into "survival mode," his son, Gale Penaflor, 37, said Monday.

The 72-year-old retiree was back home in San Francisco, 13 pounds lighter than when he disappeared and his voice raspy, but otherwise in excellent health, his family said. Penaflor got lost during a deer hunting trip in treacherous terrain marked by jagged cliffs and slippery shale, and shrouded by thick fog. Other hunters discovered him Oct. 12.

Gene Penaflor, a native of the Philippines, and a longtime friend were camped at 6,000-foot elevation when they separated to stalk deer. Penaflor's companion reported him missing in an area known as Bloody Rock early Sept. 24. Penaflor had fallen into a crevice, hit his head and lost consciousness. He awoke disoriented in the fog, the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department said.

Authorities said Penaflor walked around for a while before realizing he was lost and set up camp under a tree near a stream. The son said his father had two garbage bags with him and wore them to keep himself dry. Temperatures dipped to 25 degrees. "He said his boots were really key," Gale Penaflor said. "They're Gore-Tex."

Gene Penaflor also had a lighter he used to build a fire, throwing his prey — three squirrels, one snake, two frogs and two lizards — directly on the embers. He said his ammunition, intended for deer, would have shattered a squirrel so he carefully aimed for the head.

Searchers with dogs and in helicopters scanned the wilderness for days before a storm forced them to suspend the effort Sept. 27. Gene Penaflor had spotted a helicopter and tried to send smoke signals, but the canopy of the tree must have impeded the view, he told his sons.

The search resumed Saturday, when a hunter called the Mendocino County sheriff's dispatcher and reported that a man at the bottom of a canyon was screaming for help. The hunter was with a group of about eight. One of them scrambled down to Penaflor and then summoned the others to help. They used their coats and sticks to make a stretcher and carried him out.

During his brief appearance before the news media Sunday, Penaflor seemed almost jubilant.

"In the process of several days, three squirrels were dead," he said with a smile, "because of me."


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