A scavenger hunt for fish bait turned into a desperate five-day mission by a West Sacramento man to return home.
If it was not for Mike Vilhauer’s quick thinking to fashion numerous sticks and bunches of cypress needles into an 8-feet tall ‘HELP’ sign, he may not have been rescued. The sign did eventually catch a helicopter pilot’s attention.
“There was a time I thought I wasn’t going to make it,” he said.
But his love for his wife and family, he said, motivated him to keep moving.
Vilhauer, 58, lost his way Aug. 5 as he was looking for grasshoppers for bait in the California wilderness just south of Lake Tahoe in Alpine County.
The area was unfamiliar to him because he had learned about it from a fishing book. Vilhauer was supposed to go fishing with his son but plans fell through, so he decided to go alone.
From the start, his trip seemed a bit off.
There were no fish in the lake, and a group of trucks circled his car while he was kayaking, prompting him to head back to shore.
Realizing he needed more bait, he grabbed a butterfly net and headed into the wilderness, never tracking his footsteps.
He soon realized he was lost and a storm was quickly approaching.
Vilhauer gathered branches and pine needles to make a bed for the night, so he could try to retrace his steps in the morning.
But the days quickly turned into nights and the search for home grew frustrating.
Along the way, he says he ran into deer, a bear and a wolverine, an elusive animal photographed only a few times in California.
Surviving on water, Vilhauer pondered the possibility he might not get out of the wilderness. During his trek, he found a cow bell and banged it, hoping to attract attention.
But it appeared no one was listening.
Using a knife, Vilhauer etched out a lengthy letter to his wife and family on a piece of driftwood. In the roughly made letter, he said he apologized for getting lost.
Throughout his journey, there were several instances in which he saw helicopters. He flung his arms to get attention.
His attempts were unsuccessful until Aug. 10, when a pilot finally spotted him and his sign and sent rescuers to find him.
Rescue crews from eight to nine counties, including two from Nevada, had spent countless hours searching for Vilhauer in the wilderness.
Authorities had even used divers to search the lake, where he had been last seen fishing, he said.
Although Vilhauer said he is thrilled to be home, he feels “bad and guilty” for getting lost and pulling numerous volunteers away from their families to search for him.
“They returned my faith in humanity,” he said.