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‘I’ve been in some gnarly terrain’: Boulder Creek man survived mostly on water after getting lost near Santa Cruz Mountains

‘I’ve been in some gnarly terrain’: Boulder Creek man survived mostly on water after getting lost near Santa Cruz Mountains

Instead of birds chirping, Lukas McClish woke up to two or three black hummingbirds trying to get into his hair every morning while he spent ten days lost in the woods near the Santa Cruz Mountains.

McClish, a 34-year-old man from Boulder Creek, was reported missing on June 16 after he was last seen on June 11. While he was lost, McClish said in an interview this week, he found out he had lost a large amount of weight after subsisting on mostly water while he was lost in the woods. He also said he observed the changes to the natural area after a severe fire in 2020.

“I got to experience there being no bugs by the creek, which is really rare. There’s no animals, even though you’re out in nature. You didn’t hear any birds during the day, which was really strange,” McClish said. “It was just really interesting.”

After a combined effort from the community and four government agencies, he was found on June 20 and reunited with his family, said Ashley Keehn, a spokesperson for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.

McClish said he works a variety of jobs, usually helping people with issues on their properties. The morning of June 11, McClish was waiting for a dump trailer to take some trash out of a client’s house. Seeing that the trailer wasn’t coming, he decided to go for a stroll through the woods in the client’s backyard to his next job in Brookdale.

While on the hike, McClish made a wrong turn and ended up getting lost in an area that was deeply scarred by the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fires.

He recalled that the area was almost unrecognizable, with redwood trees that could normally withstand the heat instead burned up and gone. McClish said he had hiked in the area before, and he was initially confident that he would make it to his destination.

However, established roads and trails and other landmarks were erased by the fire, which led to his “misaligned bearings,” he said. For the last three days before his rescue, he stayed in an area where Foreman Creek converged with another creek to form a river, which was where he was rescued. He said it was one of the few landmarks he knew.

“The land was reset, it’s barren, it’s not like a dark rich soil, it’s light brown, like a moonscape,” McClish said.

By the end of the first day, McClish said he knew he was lost, but he didn’t feel panicked. While he realized he was lost, he said he enjoyed seeing the nature while he followed a pipeline to a water treatment facility. He said it was interesting to see where the water came out of the ground, noting that some streams would start where ground water spilled out over some rocks or come out of a spring box before they turned into rivers.

“I’ve been in some gnarly terrain, but I didn’t think there was terrain like that in my backyard, but there was,” McClish said.

McClish was reported missing on June 16 after he missed a family dinner on Father’s Day. For many of the days that he was in the woods, McClish would budget out two to three hours to hike up a canyon and drink water from the headwaters of a stream as much as he could until he was good on water for that day.

McClish said he didn’t bring much with him on his hike; he had a pair of folding scissors and a spotting scope, but he lost them both. He also had a flashlight, which he said lasted all 10 days that he was missing. However, all he had was a baseball cap, hiking boots and pants, as he was not wearing a shirt the day that he got lost.

He recalled trying to construct different kinds of shelters against tree stumps or piling brush on top of him to keep himself warm. But every night, the pre-dawn wind would rush so much that he would have to get up and move around to keep himself warm.

“Sleeping conditions weren’t that great,” McClish said.

On top of losing sleep, there were few things to eat in nature, he said, since the area was burned so severely from the fires. McClish recalled spotting a mountain lion that might have been watching him from a distance, but he said there weren’t any bugs around the river. In fact, the only food he had eaten was from a patch of wild raspberries he had found on the day he was rescued.

On the tenth day of his misadventure, McClish said he started contemplating how he might make his way back to civilization. He said he heard people talking and yelling in the distance. But the area was completely razed — some 1,000 homes burned in the 2020 fires — and the people who lived there hadn’t returned.

He ignored the noise he heard, but later hollered back, “I’m down here! I’m going to get some water!”

“I hadn’t heard any sign of humans in the last 10 days, and I didn’t want to fool myself with a mirage, but it sounded kind of like it was a person, so I hollered back,” McClish said.

Eventually, a German shepherd ran out of the bushes and two park rangers met him. His brother-in-law and father followed, with his dad asking jokingly, “Where have you been?”. He met up with his mom, sister and best friend at the search and rescue hub.

McClish was taken to a hospital to get a health checkup and to remove gravel from his back after he fell on his eighth day in the mountains.

Keehn, of the sheriff’s office, said that several community members had tried to look for McClish while he was missing because he was very well-known in the Boulder Creek community. Around 3 p.m. on the day he was found, she said someone had heard him calling for help. The final search lasted three and a half hours until rescuers found McClish and confirmed his identity.

On Tuesday, he said he was feeling fine and was healing well.

“I’m thankful because I always wanted to go and see these little natural monument things,” McClish said. “They’re important to me, they might not be important to other people, but to be able to drink where the water comes out of the ground, I thought was pretty cool.”

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