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Modesto restaurant owner, girlfriend found safe in Tuolumne County wilderness

Modesto residents Mark Smallwood and Donna Hallberg, who went missing while hiking in Tuolumne County, were found on Friday, June 17, 2016.
Modesto residents Mark Smallwood and Donna Hallberg, who went missing while hiking in Tuolumne County, were found on Friday, June 17, 2016.

Mark Smallwood joked that he and his girlfriend, Donna Hallberg, are ready to sign up for the reality show “Survivor” after a backpacking trip in Tuolumne County went awry.

Dozens of search and rescue workers had been looking for Smallwood and Hallberg, accompanied by his dog, LuLu, after they failed to return as planned Tuesday from what was supposed to be a three-day backpacking trip.

They were reunited with waiting family Friday afternoon after coming across another group of campers and borrowing a phone to contact family members.

Smallwood, 59, who owns the Harvest Moon restaurant in downtown Modesto, is an experienced hiker. He said he knew where the couple was at all times, but the terrain was really difficult. The two ate too much in the early days, they said, so they were famished. They gave their last few morsels of food to LuLu, because she had lost some weight.

By Thursday, all they had left was a honey packet.

Hallberg, 55, estimated the couple had hiked 60 miles. She expressed gratitude to the campers they came across, who shared Gatorade and food.

The search got underway after the couple was reported missing on Wednesday; by Friday, it had expanded to cover 117 square miles. One team was one ridge over from where the couple ended up, Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele said, so even if they hadn’t come across the campers Smallwood and Hallberg would have been found within a short period of time.

Hallberg’s stepmother, Bobbi Trueblood, said Hallberg called her mother and Smallwood called the restaurant.

“Great, just great,” said Carroll Smallwood, Mark’s dad, describing his feelings about the news. One rescuer told the elder Smallwood, “Happy Father’s Day.”

Said Mele: “They are unhurt but tired. When they went into Crabtree they wanted to go northeast but bumped into some snow and rough terrain so doubled back to get to more familiar terrain. They probably ran into a drainage – a place where water naturally flows and that can be mistaken for trail. So they followed the drainage and ended up at Cleo’s Bath, where they encountered the family.”

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Sgt. Andrea Benson said the couple’s original intended destination was Chewing Gum Lake, but because of inclement weather they filed an amended route with the United States Forest Service.

Agencies including the Forest Service, National Guard, and Stanislaus, Calaveras, Alpine, Monterey, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Marin and Mono counties joined the search, the Sheriff’s Department said in a Facebook post.

The Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department sent its helicopter to assist in the search; more copters came from the California Highway Patrol and the Army and Air Force National Guard. Four scent dogs and one trail dog helped in the search, the Sheriff’s Department said.

“The emigrant wilderness search area is very large with various terrains including steep granite, meadows, valleys, creeks and snow,” the department said. Mele said National Guard members transported teams back and forth during the search.

Tom Cremer, a longtime friend of Smallwood’s, waited at the command post with his fiance, Cheryl Sturges. They were relaying updates to friends and family of the couple.

Cremer, who lives in Miwuk in Tuolumne County, said he has known Smallwood for 30 years since the two worked together at Save Mart. He described Smallwood as a survivalist who has been backpacking for many years and knows what he’s doing.

Sturges said LuLu is a good dog, too. “She’s got skills.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327

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