'I followed the sun': Mushroom picker recounts 5 days lost in Yukon bush

Alone, exhausted and thirsty, blackened by ash, and with his boots in tatters, Darrel Russell obeyed a simple strategy to find his way back to civilization.

Darrel Russell of Gitanyow, B.C. had two bottles of water, a can of pop and an orange

Darrel Russell, all smiles after being found last week. He spent five days lost near Watson Lake, Yukon. (Lindsey Russell)

Alone, exhausted and thirsty, blackened by ash, and with his boots in tatters, Darrel Russell obeyed a simple strategy to find his way back to civilization — "I followed the sun".

Russell spent five days last week desperately wandering through the charred Yukon backwoods. He had been picking morel mushrooms in the Barney Lake burn area, east of Watson Lake, and had become separated from his group.

Today, he's back home in Gitanyow, B.C., still resting and recovering from his grueling ordeal.

"Feeling a lot better than the first day I walked out. More rest now and [I'm] able to stomach my food," he told Leonard Linklater on CBC's Midday Cafe.

Russell does not seem prone to embellishment or exaggeration when relating his story. He says he survived simply by walking and climbing ridge after ridge, and believing that if he headed west, he'd eventually find his way out.

Bootless with a twisted ankle

Russell had only arrived at the Barney Lake burn not long before, so he wasn't very familiar with the area.

It had recently seen an intense storm, so there were fallen dead trees everywhere — like a game of "pick-up sticks" is how RCMP later described it.

The Barney Lake burn area, about 80 kilometres east of Watson Lake. (Government of Yukon)

Russell says he was picking mushrooms when he "wandered off in the windfall" and quickly lost track of his companions.

"I was whistling and whistling and whistling, and no answer from them."

He had two bottles of water, a can of pop and an orange. They lasted into his second day of wandering.

The next few days were spent walking, or staggering, through the blackened bush. He tried to stick to the high ridges.

At one point, he walked into a stick jutting from the ground.

"It speared me in my right side of body ... that kind of made it difficult for me to breath for a while. Plus, I twisted my ankle at the same time."

His boots were also in rough shape — in fact, they fell apart.

Russell's boots quickly fell apart. He ended up cutting up his t-shirt and using the pieces to hold his boots together. (Lindsey Russell)

"I used my shoelaces first to keep it together and then I lost those somewhere along the line. Then I realized my feet were out of my boots, so I stopped and tied everything together again."

He cut up his t-shirt and used the pieces to tie his boots.

Then he kept walking.

At night, he'd make a fire and bed down, taking care to mark where the sun set so he could keep his westward course the following day — "I followed the sun right out," he said.

He wasn't sure if anybody was searching for him, but they were

'So relieved'

On the fifth day, he attempted to scale a large ridge. It was "like climbing an exercise machine," he said. He was so weak and tired that he decided to bed down.

Then he heard what he thought was a bear walking above, but they were people. He heard their voices before he saw them.

Russell with the search and rescue crews who spent days looking for him. (Lindsey Russell)

"I was more excited than anything, so relieved to find people," he said.

Russell was helped out to meet the search crews that had been looking for him for several days. He was taken to Watson Lake to be checked out, then went back home to Gitanyow with his family.

There was one thing that kept him going through his ordeal, he said — his 18-month-old grandson.

"I just kept him in my mind."

With files from Leonard Linklater