While multiple agencies and volunteers searched for him, 74-year-old Valentino Burratin described his weekend wandering the Sunshine Mountain woods as a private three-day camping trip where he admired the starry night sky and "the creation that my God made."
Noticing his absence on Saturday, Aug. 10, Burratin's son Darrel Jerue said he thought his father drove to Anchorage to visit with his wife Sally, who was there seeing family. But Jerue's sister told him his dad wasn't in Anchorage. Suspecting he might have gone blueberry picking, Jerue and a friend drove to a popular berry picking area and found his dad's white Jeep Liberty parked on the side of a remote road. After searching until dark, he drove back to Klukwan and reported his father missing to the police.
More than 30 volunteers from Haines, Skagway and Juneau turned out to help search for Burratin. Jerue said when he returned Sunday morning to look for his dad he saw a sow and two cubs. "Tears were in my eyes thinking he's out there with these bears and with no protection," Jerue said.
Burratin had parked his car on Sunshine Mountain Road and went to pick salmonberries early Friday afternoon. After loading the salmonberries into his car, he decided to return to the woods for blueberries. He picked a little more than 2 gallons before turning around, but mistakenly followed the direction of the setting sun, Burratin said, which pointed north rather than west toward his Jeep.
Burratin is an ordained pastor from Italy. He moved to Klukwan, a village of about 95 people located 21 miles northwest of Haines, about 20 years ago, and has spent many summer days berry picking in the area. Burratin said he realized he was lost, but continued to search for his vehicle.
"Walking, walking, walking. Three days walking," Burratin said. "Walking in the woods is not easy. Mountain after mountain, thinking I knew where I was going."
Armed with only a 5-gallon bucket, a blueberry rake and a cell phone with no reception, Burratin was determined to find his way home. On Friday around midnight, he fell and scraped his leg. Burratin finally sat and rested. At 4 a.m., as dawn cast enough light to see, he stood and started walking again. Tired of bushwhacking and itchy from devil's club spines, he started following bear trails.
"It was a struggle in the bush because you don't have a trail except for the bear trail," Burratin said. "You have to climb logs or go under. At first you can do it easily and then you get tired."
While Burratin walked, U.S. Coast Guard aircrews, the Alaska State Troopers and three canine search teams all searched for Burratin. "[A] Jayhawk aircrew conducted a one-hour search utilizing night vision goggles, forward-looking infrared radar, and a spot light," a Coast Guard news release said.
Burratin walked again all day Saturday and into the night. On Saturday night, he wrapped his hands with a plastic grocery bag to keep them warm and laid down on a makeshift bed of grasses. As he stared skyward, he heard helicopter blades thumping overhead. To no avail, he shined the dim, tiny light of his cell phone toward the sky.
"I wasn't scared at all," Burratin said. "I had the opportunity to see the stars, [which] in the middle of the night, you have quite some time to admire."
Jerue said an official with the troopers told him early Sunday morning that the Coast Guard air crews found no sign of Burratin during their search. "They said they didn't hit anything," Jerue said. "No heat source from a human and no heat source from bears."
Although the area is without coverage, Burratin's daughter-in-law Tina Jerue said she called his cell phone every half-hour. "I was scared and worried that something had happened to him…so worried and stressed that I ended up getting sick and having a really bad migraine."
Burratin might not have been scared, but he was thirsty. While rescuers searched from air and land, Burratin subsisted on watermelon berries, a berry Tina told him about the day before he got lost.
"I believe it wasn't just a coincidence. The lord provided for me to know the watermelon berry," Burratin said. "Blueberries, when you are thirsty, they don't satisfy."
On Sunday he continued wandering, but eventually circled back to where he started the day, near Walker Lake a little more than 6 miles from his Jeep. Exhausted, Burratin finally stopped. "I said, 'No more walking.'"
He decided to stay put and signal for help. He used bundles of ferns, tied with makeshift strings from a plant, to form letters. He crafted an 'H' and an 'E' when he heard the sound of a helicopter.
The Coast Guard Jayhawk aircrew spotted Burratin, and his yellow rain pants, near Walker Lake Sunday afternoon. They airlifted him to the airport where an ambulance transported him to the Haines SEARHC clinic, his son and daughter-in-law following close behind. When rescuers informed Burratin's family he'd been found, Tina said she wanted to scream.
In the helicopter and in the clinic, Burratin refused intravenous fluids, he said. "They want to give me IV," Burratin said. "I said 'I don't want it. I need to drink water.' But I wasn't dehydrated. If I wasn't eating all those watermelon berries I would have been dehydrated."
Burratin ate chicken soup at the clinic and again when he got home and drank moose broth Monday morning for breakfast. "I lost so much weight I was losing my pants. I put my coat inside my pants so they were staying up," Burratin said. "I believe I lost about 12 to 15 pounds."
Tina said Burratin was in good spirits on his return home. "He's the same old dad. I gave him a big hug. I think my husband was able to sleep well [Sunday] night. I was."
Tina and Darrel Jerue moved to Klukwan from Juneau about a month ago. If they hadn't been in town, it's likely no one would have reported Burratin missing, Jerue said.
Burratin said when he takes to the woods, he'll never leave home again without leaving a note. He also said he'll always remember to walk into and out of the bush by the same trail.
Throughout his days and nights wandering the woods, Burratin said he often prayed.
"I prayed, 'Lord answer me! You know I'm lost.' He never said anything," Burratin quipped. "One time I said, 'Lord send an angel.' He didn't send an angel, he sent a helicopter."
This story was republished with permission from the Chilkat Valley News.