Missing Modesto backpackers found, talk about experience

Mark Smallwood joked that he and his girlfriend, Donna Hallberg, are ready to sign up for the television 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. By using a map, he said he knew where he and Hallberg were at all times, but the terrain was really difficult. The two ate too much in the early days, they said, so 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 – a family with two teenage boys – who shared Gatorade and food. She said they hope to reunite with that family at Harvest Moon sometime soon to better say thanks.

The search got under way after the couple was reported missing 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 time.

Hallberg’s stepmother, Bobbi Trueblood, said Hallberg called her mother and Smallwood called the restaurant, apparently hoping to reach his son, Trevor. But Trevor was up at Dodge Ridge all day, waiting for word.

Among other friends and family members at the command post were Smallwood’s father, Carroll Smallwood of Groveland. “Great, just great,” he said, choking up as he described his feelings upon hearing of the safe return.

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 a 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 Stanislaus County, Calaveras County, Alpine County, Monterey County, Contra Costa County, El Dorado County, Marin County, Mono County, Forest Service and the National Guard 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. There were four scent dogs and one trail dog helping 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 in the search.

Tom Cremer, a longtime friend of Smallwood’s, waited at the command post with his fiancë, Cheryl Sturges. They were relaying updates to friends and family members 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 added that LuLu is a good dog to have when in a bind. “She’s got skills.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327