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.