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How 72-Year-Old Calif. Man Survived 19-Day Wilderness Ordeal

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Updated: 10/14/2013 12:56 pm

(CBS News) A 72-year-old California man is recovering after he was found alive Saturday after spending nearly three weeks lost alone in the woods. Gene Penaflor was finally reunited with his family Saturday, hours after he was spotted in the wilderness of northern California.

Sharon Bura, Penaflor's niece, said, "My husband came into the room and they were like, 'They found Uncle Gene alive!' And I was like, 'What! What!' And as soon as I heard that I started crying because I was just so happy that he was safe."

The ordeal began last month deep in the Mendocino National Forest. Penaflor split up from his hunting partner and later fell and blacked out. Jeremy Penaflor, his son, said, "When we heard the news it was devastating. It was as if somebody took our hearts and stepped on it so we felt helpless."

Nearly 20 agencies spent four days looking for Penaflor. But with a storm moving in and no sign of the missing hunter, the search was called off.

For 19 days, Penaflor -- a lover of the outdoors -- survived on the skills he knew. "To keep himself warm, he gathered up dry leaves and slept underneath it, and he also ate squirrels, some lizards, snakes and algae from the water to survive," Jeremy said.

A search team headed out again on Saturday, but it was a group of hunters who happened to hear Penaflor's cries for help. "They bumped into each other, found him, and they made a gurney from their jackets and lifted him all the way back up the road," his son said.

Family members say Penaflor was found surprisingly in good condition. Bura said of her uncle, "He's great, he's happy to be home and just telling his stories."

Jeremy added, "Just as if he took a long vacation and came back home with a beard."

© 2013 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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