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Dave Stornetta could see the helicopters circling above the rugged Trinity County wilderness during the seven days and six nights he was lost without food or shelter with his beloved deaf dog, Maggie.

But for five days, they did not see him.

The Mendocino Coast man lived on grubs, lizards and grasshoppers and survived despite wild rainstorms that sent trees crashing to the ground around him. On Tuesday, a private chartered helicopter crew spotted smoke from three small fires he’d set along his path in a steep canyon of the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness just over the Mendocino County line.

“I have never been so excited to see a helicopter bank like it did,” Stornetta said.

A man’s voice came over the copter’s loudspeaker: “Stay right there, I’ll be back.”

Stornetta recounted his ordeal by phone from his home in Manchester near Point Arena, two hours after being reunited with his wife, Kelly, and their youngest sons, Jacob, 3, and Joseph, 1.

Stornetta and his son Kyle, 33, set out to camp and hunt deer on the last week of hunting season with two others in a corner of southeast Trinity County where Stornetta said he had not been in the past. They arrived Monday, Oct. 20, set up camp and spent Tuesday hunting.

Stornetta said he set out Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. for the same area near Soldier Ridge. He spotted a sturdy three- or four-point buck. He began to follow it.

“It was a beautiful buck. He knew what he was doing; he let me see him then he’d step out of sight,” Stornetta said. “He was real cagey — that’s how they are in that country. They toy with you.”

The buck lured him down a bluff. By the time he got to the bottom, Stornetta said he must have become disoriented and set out in the wrong direction. He hiked and hiked. But nothing looked familiar. He couldn’t find his way back.

Being lost was unfamiliar territory for the 59-year-old member of the Stornetta ranching family. Living and working on his family’s sprawling coastal property, Stornetta has spent his life outdoors.

“That’s not me,” Stornetta said. “I’m not supposed to get lost.”

Back at the trailhead, Stornetta’s son Kyle Stornetta waited at their designated lunch meeting spot. But his father didn’t show. By 8 p.m., he alerted the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office.

That triggered a call for regional search and rescue teams, composed of volunteers trained and organized by local sheriff’s departments, to report to the remote area down winding, dirt roads near Soldier Ridge. Fourteen agencies sent volunteers. At the peak, 64 hikers, four dog teams and two helicopters searched for Stornetta.

Deep in the rugged wilderness, Stornetta had only a sweatshirt, wind breaker, rifle, a lighter and his McNab shepherd Maggie, his companion for 12 years.

The man stalked lizards in the dry rocks along the creeks rushing after the storms. He’d heat them over the fire. The biggest grasshoppers “were pretty good,” Stornetta said. Lizard, not so much, but “I just went for it, down the hatch,” he said.

He gathered wood long before dark, setting up a fire he’d light at the last moment. He heated stones and put them under him to keep warm, singeing his clothes and boots.

Storms blew in Thursday and Saturday. One night, strong, terrifying winds sent trees crashing to the ground around him. Stornetta said that was one of many sleepless nights with only Maggie for comfort.

“During the wet, cold, windy nights, she would climb right on me, she basically kept me warm,” Stornetta said.

Stornetta said frustration momentarily welled inside him as he watched the helicopters circling over the wilderness then disappear. But mostly, he remained upbeat.

As the days piled up, Stornetta said he didn’t feel hungry but became weary.

He’d hike 10 feet up a hill and have to stop to rest. He left behind his rifle once it grew too heavy.

Yet the vistas of that wild, seemingly untouched land at times eclipsed the nagging thoughts that came and went.

“I’d get to spots where I was just amazed at the beauty of it. I just made the best of whatever I had,” Stornetta said.

He recounted one rainy night when a bear crashed through the timber and Maggie took off after it. The bear took off, too, but ran smack into a tree.

“He did a complete somersault,” he said, chuckling as he recounted the slapstick moment. “He bounced up and came right back down on the ground.”

“That was just pretty amazing to me, that was a light moment,” Stornetta said. “Then there were moments thinking about my sons and tearing up.”

When the sun came up, he’d dry out his clothes and kick back by a fresh fire, his legs scratched up from scrambling through whitethorn shrub.

By nightfall Monday, the trained searchers had found no sign of Stornetta and suspended their hunt for the man. Stornetta’s wife, Kelly, chartered two helicopters with Air Shasta Rotor and Wing based in Redding.

President and chief pilot Dave Everson had recently been searching on the far northern end of Trinity County for a missing hiker from Windsor, Stephen Morris, who has been lost now for 90 days and is presumed dead. Everson also was the pilot who four years ago — on a hunch — found a missing couple from Fremont who were trapped by snowstorms in a Mendocino National Forest campsite in Lake County but had not told anyone where they had gone.

On Tuesday, he and pilot Casey Ross set out in two helicopters equipped to carry different loads. When they arrived at camp, Everson said he could tell that the group was determined to keep looking but that hope was waning.

Everson set out with three lookouts, including Kyle Stornetta, who directed him across ridges to areas where he thought they should look.

That’s when they saw the first column of smoke. Everson said he landed in the area and found a small, smoldering campfire.

“I put my hand in the ashes, and it was hot,” Everson said.

They found a set of fresh boot prints that Kyle was sure were his father’s Red Wing boots. Hunting season had ended that weekend, making it less likely anyone else would be out there.

They got back up into the air and saw a second column of smoke. Then a third at the bottom of a tight creek canyon with 1,000-foot walls on either side, Everson said.

“We saw hands waving,” Everson said.

Stornetta was perfectly camouflaged into the background but for his waving hands.

In a lighter, more agile craft, Ross piloted the helicopter close to Stornetta with the intention to drop food and a jacket and return with a plan to retrieve him. But he decided he could get under the overhanging branches and touch down, with just one skid on a rock.

It was a technical maneuver but just enough time for Stornetta to grab Maggie and jump in.

“That was all he needed. He was ready to get out of there,” Ross said.

When Stornetta stepped off the helicopter at camp, about 50 friends and family were singing “Happy Birthday.”

It was one day after Stornetta turned 59, alone in the woods.

He stayed that night at a Willits motel and drove home Wednesday morning.

When she heard her husband was on the road home, Kelly Stornetta went outside and stayed there until her husband pulled into the driveway.

“I just sat in the driveway, waiting and crying,” Kelly Stornetta said. “Oh it was just … I don’t know …It was just amazing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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