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Lost tree hunter: 'It was really surreal'

Keith and Jennifer Lee were driving to their Medford home on a remote mountain road, their prized Christmas tree strapped to the roof of their all-wheel-drive, when they rounded a backcountry corner and found themselves suddenly mired in snow.

Out of cell-phone range, and unaware a search was under way, the couple spent three days and two cold nights before Keith Lee finally freed the Subaru and drove home, the tree still tied on top.

They soon heard radio news reports about a search that had begun Wednesday with a helicopter, Sno-Cats and ATVs. They called 9-1-1, then phoned a close friend who was taking care of their four children.

"I screamed, 'They're safe, they're coming home,' " said the friend, Sophie Smith. "Everybody just fell and cried."

Just like thousands of Oregonians each year, the Lees bought a Christmas tree permit from their local national forest office and headed out Tuesday morning to find the perfect tree — a silver-tip fir that only grows at high elevations, just like the tree they got a year ago. They were traveling in the Siskiyou Mountains on a remote road between the Applegate Valley and Mount Ashland when they bogged down.

The couple also ventured into the Siskiyou Mountains near the California border last year, but got lost. They were better prepared this time, bringing two maps, a cell phone equipped with a GPS, three blankets and 24 bottles of water. They purposely drove their all-wheel-drive, but didn't take chains or food.

The couple cut the tree and headed home. Then disaster struck.

"We went around the corner, and there was no snow and then all of a sudden it was like quicksand," said Jennifer Lee, 38. "We just sank into two feet of snow."

Keith Lee, 36, tried rocking, putting the car in drive, then quickly in reverse. But each time the car slid back closer to a cliff.

"It was like something you see on TV news," Jennifer Lee said. "It was really surreal — not like it was really happening to us."

Above the fog that can sock in the Rogue Valley during the winter, the Lees were warm during the day. The couple huddled under their blankets at night, running the car engine 15 minutes every hour for heat. They had no food, but plenty of water.

Jennifer Lee said she spent much of Tuesday and Wednesday praying while her husband worked to free the car. She thought of her kids, ages 8 to 18, and what kind of Christmas it would be for them without their parents.

"Who was gonna have my kids?" she said. "Where were they gonna go? What kind of Christmas is this without my kids? Santa. Of course, Santa. Where's Santa gonna go? Santa for my 8-year-old. Where's my 8-year-old gonna go?"

Smith had picked up 8-year-old Maddie after school on Tuesday, as planned. When the Lees didn't return to their Medford home that night, Smith brought the rest of the kids and the dog to her house. She called police Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, authorities were trying to figure out where to begin their search.

"It was absolutely a needle in a haystack," Medford police Sgt. Mike Budreau said. "The more time that went by, the more concerned we got and we were absolutely concerned we were not going to find them alive."

Police had two clues: the Lees had gone into the Siskiyous for a tree like last year's tree. And they had left behind a piece of paper with the numbers 37 and 140 on it, a reference to two highways that mark a popular Christmas tree spot in the Cascade Range, clear on the other side of the valley. Around-the-clock searches of both areas turned up nothing.

Efforts to track their cell-phone's contacts with towers — which helped narrow the search three years ago for a Northern California family lost outside Grants Pass — led nowhere. The last cell-phone information police could find for the couple was from Monday.

"We were kind of dead in the water," Budreau said.

The couple knew exactly where they were, but had no way to communicate, Jennifer Lee said.

Early Thursday morning, a newly determined Keith Lee changed strategies, rocking the car forward instead of backward, putting rocks underneath the tires, and filling in the ruts from behind.

"Suddenly the car just shot forward," he said. "Then we backed down the hill. I had my wife spot to make sure we went in some real deep ruts that looked like some truck had turned around a couple days earlier."

Smith called in a to-go order for breakfast from a nearby restaurant, and the Lees ate and showered before heading home, where they told their tale to reporters.

Keith Lee said he was undaunted, and would be going back to the mountains for his silver-tip again next year, because they are so beautiful and freshly cut trees last so much longer than the ones you buy at a lot.

But his wife said she would be staying home.

"What were we thinking?" she said. "Thirty dollars for a Christmas tree. Just pay the $30 and be done with it. Thirty dollars wasn't worth our life."

Jeff Barnard is an Associated Press writer based in Grants Pass. AP writer William McCall contributed to this story from Portland.

Keith Lee may have spent a couple of cold nights stuck in the snow, but he came back with his family's Christmas tree intact. - Bob Pennell