Scotts Valley family recounts finding lost Modesto hikers

The Nilsson family, pictured here, found missing Modesto hikers Mark Smallwood and Donna Hallberg in the Stanislaus National Forest.
The Nilsson family, pictured here, found missing Modesto hikers Mark Smallwood and Donna Hallberg in the Stanislaus National Forest. Eric Nilsson

The Nilsson family had just started hiking into the backcountry of the Stanislaus National Forest from Pinecrest Lake on Friday when they came across some hikers who told them rescuers were searching for a missing Modesto couple and their dog.

“I thought, ‘Oh, hopefully they get found,’ ” said 17-year-old Jeremi Nilsson. “I wasn’t expecting to walk up to them randomly.”

But about four hours and 1,400 feet later, he and his brother Mathew Nilsson, 15, were just about to reach the top of a peak near Cleo’s Bath when they heard a noise below.

Several hundred feet away, they could see the figures of two people waving their hiking sticks in the air. They saw the couple’s black dog and knew they must be the couple from Modesto who had been lost for nearly a week, Harvest Moon restaurant owner Mark Smallwood, 59, and his girlfriend, Donna Hallberg, 55.

The brothers made their way to the couple, who were elated to see them.

“They were just overjoyed that they saw people and hugged each other,” Jeremi Nilsson said. “The first thing Donna said was, ‘Mark, give them some money.’ 

The boys told them that wouldn’t be necessary and offered them some beef jerky, which the couple gladly accepted.

“When we found them, they said an hour ago was their darkest time, when they really started to wonder if they’d be found,” he said.

The boys let the couple use their cellphone. Hallberg called her mother to let her know she was OK and Smallwood called the restaurant to let everyone know they’d be getting their paychecks, Nilsson said.

Then the brothers led them to their base camp, where their father and stepmother, Eric and Ilo Nilsson, were waiting and watching them through binoculars. Eric and Ilo had been backcountry backpacking before, but this was the boys’ first experience – a special Father’s Day weekend adventure.

Eric Nilsson was periodically checking on his sons through the binoculars as they climbed to the top of the peak.

“I looked back again and all of a sudden I saw four people coming down the hill instead of two,” he said.

Once back at the Nilssons’ camp, Smallwood and Hallberg chowed down more food and told the Scotts Valley family how they’d left the previous weekend from the Crabtree trailhead but lost the trail in thick snow. They told them they ate most of their food in the first few days and had only a honey packet to eat for breakfast that day.

Looking at a topographic map, “They showed us the places they tried to go and where they had thought they had been,” Ilo Nilsson said. “They told us they got boxed in a couple of times and had to wade (through) a creek up to waist deep.”

The family said it was obvious the couple had been through a bit of an ordeal: their clothes were dirty and torn. Hallberg had blisters on her feet, which Ilo Nilsson treated.

“They looked kind of exhausted with a layer of euphoria overlaying it,” Nilsson said. “Mark was very quiet and Donna was very effusive.”

The family offered the couple a hot meal, something more than jerky and granola bars, but they were eager to get back to their family and wanted to head down the hill right away.

Eric Nilsson called the ranger station and rescuers arranged to meet them at Pinecrest Lake. The family walked the couple down the mountain; Ilo Nilsson carried Hallberg’s pack and Jeremi Nilsson carried Smallwood’s.

They met with rescuers who would take the couple to be examined by medics and reunite with family. The couple parted ways with the Nilsson family.

“That was hard for Matt because he felt a certain responsibility for them,” Ilo Nilsson said. “He felt protective of them and wanted to see them through the process.”

Eric and Ilo Nilsson said they are proud of their sons and the ability they showed on their first backpacking trip.

“Both boys acted very admirably,” Ilo Nilsson said.

The family said the rest of the trip was beautiful and peaceful; Eric Nilsson caught trout in the Stanislaus River on Father’s Day. They said it was a trip they’ll never forget.

The family might be making a trip to Modesto soon. Smallwood and Hallberg invited them to have dinner with them at Harvest Moon.

Related stories from Modesto Bee