Jeff Jardine

Lost? Rescued? It’s a toss-up for Modesto restaurateur, girlfriend

A week ago, some very pertinent questions involved Harvest Moon restaurant owner Mark Smallwood and his girlfriend, Donna Hallberg of Modesto.

First and foremost, where were they? The couple, along with Smallwood’s 7-year-old McNab cattle dog, LuLu, embarked June 12 upon what was supposed to be a three-day backpacking trip in the Stanislaus National Forest’s Emigrant Wilderness, and specifically an area northeast of the Dodge Ridge ski resort. When they didn’t return as scheduled, authorities in Tuolumne County began an extensive search of the area. Had one or both of them been injured? Had they slipped and perished while trying to cross one of the swift-flowing streams? Were they lost?

The next question, to some restaurant regulars: Is Harvest Moon open today? After all, folks down here need their Neil’s Toss salad fix. What is a palate to do?

It’s an episode we can now joke about only because Smallwood and Hallberg, after a spending a few extra harrowing nights in the backcountry, safely found their way to Cleo’s Bath, an area on the South Fork of the Stanislaus River upstream from Pinecrest Lake. There, they met other backpackers, who provided food and a cellphone.

Which raises the final question: Who pays for the search? Smallwood himself feared he might soon get a bill in the mail. That’s not going to happen, Tuolumne County sheriff’s Sgt. Andrea Benson said. They haven’t penciled out the cost, but grants and taxpayers finance the search-and-rescue efforts, most of which involve multiple agencies. No charge to Smallwood and Hallberg.

“We just wanted to be sure they were safe,” she said. “We’re grateful they are OK.”

Smallwood, 59, is adamant he and Hallberg, 55, made it out on their own despite the operation that involved four helicopters, roughly 70 trained rescuers (most volunteers) and search dogs.

“We were not rescued. I’m glad of that, for my own ego,” Smallwood said when we chatted Tuesday afternoon at his downtown Modesto eatery. “We got ourselves into a mess, we got ourselves out.”

But make no mistake about it: They were lost, Benson said. Yes, it can be humbling, humiliating and difficult to concede for those who are confident of their knowledge of the area.

“I don’t want to be sexist, but most men don’t like to admit they were lost,” she said. “And they were lost.”

For certain, they strayed from the main trails, couldn’t find them again because of snow and thus were unable to retrace their route back to their SUV parked at the Crabtree Trailhead. They carried enough food for three days and the trip lasted six.

They saw the helicopters fly over and tried to get their attention. Hallberg waved her orange sleeping bag. Had the pilot spotted them and landed, they gladly would have hitched a ride. Benson said they compounded the search by being on the move. Had they stayed in one spot, the searchers would have found them.

Hallberg certainly was lost if only because she didn’t know the area as well as Smallwood, who went in there on backpacking trips with his dad while growing up. After a long hiatus, he starting going again in 2015.

Hallberg said conditions were completely different when they visited the same area a year ago, when the drought was at its worst and the snowpack measured only 5 percent of normal in April. It was better this year, 87 percent, but certainly didn’t meet the projected North Pole-like numbers that El Niño teased. The mountains can be pretty unforgiving. The trails are generally covered in places by snow into early July. The streams are booming. Where you stood yesterday can look completely different today and again tomorrow as nature does its daily costume change.

“There was a meadow that was covered in flowers and absolutely beautiful when we went in there last year,” Hallberg said. “Mark didn’t really want to go in yet. It’s tough for him to get three or four days off from the restaurant, but I kind of pushed it. I couldn’t wait to go there again.”

And you are lost when you end up exactly in the same place you were the day before, and not by design. That happened to them, working a loop that took them from Bear Lake to Y Meadow Reservoir to Cooper Meadow – where Smallwood tried unsuccessfully to break the lock on a 141-year-old cabin that is on the National Register of Historic Places – and then back to Y Meadow Reservoir by accident.

They eventually returned to the South Fork drainage and worked their way down to Cleo’s Bath, where they were spotted Friday by a couple of teens who recognized them because of LuLu, Smallwood’s dog. They were taken by authorities to Dodge Ridge, where they were debriefed.

“I asked them, ‘Is there going to be media there?’ ” Smallwood said. “They, said ‘There’s going to be lots of media there.’ I went, ‘Aw, man!’ I felt like such an idiot.”

Back in Modesto, Smallwood spent Sunday sifting through the texts, emails and Facebook postings – about 3,000 of them, he said.

“The community outpouring was so heartwarming,” he said. “It made us feel so good.”

They are appreciative of the time and efforts of the search-and-rescue units and the family who helped at Cleo’s Bath.

“We were sorry to put people through so much stress,” he said. “We’re so glad it had a happy ending. And it had a dog it in. People love a good dog story.”

And a Neil’s Toss salad.

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