Missing Ore. couple safe after 2 nights in snow

Tree Hunt Missing
Keith Lee of Medford, Ore. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Authorities say a couple whose vehicle got stuck in the snow on a Christmas tree hunt high in the mountains near the Oregon-California border have returned after going missing for two days.

The Jackson County sheriff's office says Jennifer and Keith Lee of Medford were able to free their all-wheel drive Subaru by placing rocks under the wheels. They called deputies after they reached a small town near home.

Sheriff's Lt. Pat Rowland says the couple called as soon as they got a cell phone signal after hearing a massive search for them had begun.

Rowland says the couple had actually traveled across the border into California, away from the initial search area.

Deputies were interviewing the couple, who had been missing since Tuesday.

Hunt for elusive tree
Jackson County Sheriff's Lt. Pat Rowland said they had saturated the area with Sno-Cats and ATVs, looking for Jennifer, 38, and Keith Lee, 36.

The two set out Tuesday morning in their electric blue, all-wheel-drive Subaru but told no one exactly where they were going. Keith Lee is diabetic, a relative said.

"It's cold weather and not a lot of snow, but there's ice out there," making backcountry roads treacherous, Rowland said. "If the car tipped over, it's not going to be easy to spot."

The couple did tell their four kids, ages 8 to 18, that they hoped to bring back a silvertip fir, a prized tree found only at high elevations.

Rowland said about 45 searchers planned to hunt for the couple through the night in temperatures that dipped into the teens and mid-20s.

The search focused on the high Cascades between Medford and Klamath Falls after police found a piece of paper in the couple's home with the numbers 140 and 37 written on it, an apparent reference to two highways that intersect at Fish Lake near the crest of the mountains, police Sgt. Mike Budreau said.

Air and group search
Helicopter and ground searches turned up nothing in the Siskiyou Mountains south of Medford, where the couple got stuck for four hours while getting their tree last year, Budreau said.

A helicopter joined the search in the Cascades until darkness fell, Rowland said.

Like thousands of Oregonians each year, the Lees bought their Christmas tree permit from the local national forest office and headed into the mountains, police said. They first went tree hunting Monday but didn't find what they wanted, so they set out again Tuesday after the kids went to school. Jennifer Lee asked a friend to pick up their 8-year-old daughter.

Each year searches are mounted for a few who get stranded or lost while hunting for Christmas trees in Oregon, Rowland said.

Concern for condition
Before learning of Lee's safe return, his uncle said Lee was familiar with the woods from frequent camping trips and backcountry motorcycle riding; was good with cars, being the manager of an auto parts store; and always carried a cell phone.

"He loves the woods," Hill said just before leaving for Medford from Sacramento, Calif., where Keith Lee lived before moving to Oregon two years ago.

"And he loves to rough it a lot. That's why I'm not too worried about him at this point," said Hill, a retired civilian employee on an Air Force base. "But the one who hasn't done a lot of camping is his wife, Jennifer. And what really scares me about him is he's diabetic now. If he forgot his insulin or something like that, it might be dangerous."