Around the Nation
5:14 pm
Sat August 23, 2014

Alone In The Wilderness, A Lost Fisherman Fights For His Life

Originally published on Sat August 23, 2014 6:26 pm

It's a textbook worst-case scenario: You're out in the wilderness, hiking deep through a remote forest, and suddenly you realize you're completely lost.

You have no cell phone signal, no food and no idea where you are. You've wandered off your map, and into a potential disaster.

That's exactly what happened to Mike Vilhauer earlier this month.

He was on a fishing trip in the Mokelumne Wilderness, about 70 miles east of Sacramento, Calif., when what started as a weekend getaway turned into a fight for his life.

"I was fishing on this lake. It was a small lake and I was in a kayak, I was the only one there," Mike Vilhauer tells host Tess Vigeland. "I'd been there all day fishing without success."

So he decided to search for grasshoppers to use as bait. His search led him deeper and deeper into the wilderness.

Not finding any insects, he headed back to his campsite.

"I went up a ridge and was expecting to see the lake and ... no lake," he says.

Vilhauer was lost.

"I actually had a little topographical map just around the lake and by the time I realized I was lost, I was actually off my map," he says.

At first, he wasn't panicked so much as irritated with himself. "It was getting windy and a storm-front was coming in," he says. "I was looking for somewhere to get out of the wind and then I found a big pine tree."

He covered himself with branches, but his clothes were wet from going in and out of streams that day.

"So I stayed awake all night, as I did for the next four nights," he says.

Vilhauer didn't have any food with him, but he was able to keep hydrated by drinking from streams and puddles.

"I would always go back down to the streams," he says. "I just kept drinking whenever I could find some water."

Meanwhile, rescue crews from eight different counties were out searching for Vilhauer. At one point, a search and rescue helicopter flew directly overhead but didn't spot him.

There was a moment when Vilhauer almost lost hope.

"Saturday was my last attempt at trying to crest a mountain to look on the other side," he says. "I didn't think the ridge was that high and unfortunately, I'd get up to that ridge, and there'd be another ridge, and then there'd be another ridge and another ridge."

Exhausted, Vilhauer stopped hiking.

"I actually just laid down and for a few minutes [thought] 'You know what, I'm done. I can't do this anymore,' " he says.

But he knew he couldn't give up. He made a plan.

"I'm going back down to that damn water and I'm going to stay there for as long as it takes till they find me," he says.

Vilhauer made his way down to the edge of a cliff and noticed a cypress tree in the middle of a clear, gravelly area.

"I started doing a little hair-cutting on the cypress tree" — ripping off needles and branches — "and then sticking the branches into the ground on the side of this ridge," he says.

His 8-foot-tall message, written in tree branches and cypress needles, read, "HELP."

One of the search and rescue helicopters spotted Vilhauer's message.

"They came by and I was thinking they were going over the ridge, but they came back around," he says. "They had to see me, I mean, I'm getting up and waving my little shirt and yelling and screaming for 30-40 seconds before I was exhausted."

The helicopter was actually circling the area in order to help guide a ground team to make contact with Vilhauer.

Then the first crew member from the rescue team emerged from the woods.

"It was actually a dog," Vilhauer says. "It was the tracking dog. And right behind her was the dog handler. And then I could look up and see the other ones coming down. They were all in orange.

"That was one hell of a relief."

Mike Vilhauer is back home in Sacramento. He's still recovering, but getting back to normal.

Next month, he'll meet with members of the El Dorado County search and rescue team who spotted his message. And he won't need any cypress needles to say "thanks."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

You're out in the wilderness, hiking deep through a remote forest, and suddenly you realize you're completely lost. You have no cell phone signal, no food. You have no idea where you are. That's what happened to Mike Vilhauer earlier this month. He was on a fishing trip in the Mokelumne Wilderness 70 miles east of Sacramento, California, when what started as a weekend getaway turned into a fight for his life.

MIKE VILHAUER: I was fishing on this lake. It was a small lake, and I was in a kayak. I'm the only one there. It was, like, 10:45 in the morning because I'd been there all day fishing and without success. And then I thought, you know what, I'm going to hurry up and go get some bait and come right back. And it ended up being five days later that I actually got to see somebody.

VIGELAND: And what were you looking for out in the woods?

VILHAUER: Grasshoppers, actually. After everything else failed, get the local insects and then the vast majority of times we'd catch fish. And so I thought, you know what, I'm going to go and see if I can find some. And went up a ridge and was expecting to see the lake - and no lake. I actually had a little topographical map just around the lake. And by the time I realized I was lost, I was actually off my map.

VIGELAND: Do you, at some point, start to feel panic creeping in?

VILHAUER: I was actually more irritated with myself. It was getting windy and a storm front was coming in. And so I was looking for somewhere to get out of the wind. And then I found a big pine tree and just started pulling in needles. And then I saw some willow trees, and so I started cutting branches and then basically just tried to cover up. I was wet from going in and out of streams so I stayed awake all night, as I did for the next four nights.

VIGELAND: Mike, what were you surviving on? Did you have any food with you? Any water? What did you do?

VILHAUER: I had no food for five days. And then there's some streams running through these canyons that I was crossing to go up to the ridges. And so I would always go back down to the streams. I just kept drinking whenever I could find some water.

VIGELAND: Rescue crews were out searching for you. And I know there was a time when a helicopter flew basically right overhead and they didn't spot you. But another day goes by. And by day five, you are still out there. Did you ever think to yourself - I'm not going to get out of here?

VILHAUER: Saturday was my last attempt at trying to crest a mountain to look on the other side, and I didn't think the ridge was that high. And unfortunately, I'd get up to that ridge and there'd be another ridge, and then there'd be another ridge, and another ridge. And then I actually just laid down and I - for a few minutes said, you know what, I'm done. I can't do this anymore. I'm exhausted. I have no strength. And then about five - ten minutes, and then I said no, I'm not doing that here. I'm going back to that damn water. And I'm going to stay there for as long as it takes until they find me.

VIGELAND: You decide that you're going to write a giant message with cypress needles. Where did you do it? Was there a meadow or something where that was going to stand out to anyone who was looking for you from above?

VILHAUER: I was at the edge of a cliff, and the gravel and the rock was very light - like a light tan. And there was one tree in the middle, and it was a cypress tree. I started doing little haircutting on the cypress tree and then sticking branches into the ground on the side of this ridge, with help - about 8-feet-tall letters.

VIGELAND: And this is what got you rescued?

VILHAUER: Ultimately, they saw the help sign, yeah. They came by and they - I was thinking they were going over the ridge, but they came back around. They had to see me. I mean, I'm getting up, and waving my little shirt, and yelling and screaming for, you know, 30 - 40 seconds before I was exhausted. And then they'd come back around again. They were circling for the ground team.

VIGELAND: And what was that like for you when you saw the first person come out of the woods?

VILHAUER: It was actually a dog. Micah was the tracking dog, and right then behind her was that dog handler. And then I could look up, and I could see the other ones coming down. They were all in orange. And so that was one hell of a relief.

VIGELAND: Mike Vilhauer - stranded in the Northern California wilderness for five days. He is back home in Sacramento, still recovering but getting back to normal. According to the Alpine County Sherriff's Department, eight counties had search and rescue teams out looking for him. Next month, he'll meet with members of those search crews, including the El Dorado County search and rescue team, which spotted his help message written in cypress needles, to thank them and maybe to promise that they'll never have to do it again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.