It was a joyful reunion when Denise Lee reached the Chamisa Trailhead on Wednesday night as her mother, Santa Fe Public Schools board president Linda Trujillo, draped a blanket around her.
Lee and her three young children got turned around while hiking in the Sante Fe National Forest, ending up several miles below where they started on the Bear Wallow Trail.
“I didn’t think we were going to get out tonight,” Lee said shortly after her ordeal ended. “It was terrifying.”
Lee, and her children, Olivia, 7, Sophia, 3, and Oliver, 21 months, headed out on the Bear Wallow Trail about 2 p.m. Wednesday, but the trail split and Lee got confused as to her direction.
As the sun began to set, she called her mother, then 911 about 5 p.m., with the New Mexico State Police and the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Department responding.
But she was unable to hear sirens that the officers set off from their cars at the trailhead and she said she lost her sense of direction.
The family ate bananas that they had brought and a seaweed snack – “it’s their favorite snack,” Lee said. As it started to get darker, though, the children were scared, so “we sang, ‘Jesus loves me this I know,’” she said. “I got them calmed down, but then I started crying. But they kept telling me, ‘They’re going to find us. They’re going to find us.’”
After sundown, a deputy and a state police officer headed up Bear Wallow Trail, while state police officer Oliver Wilson and state police dispatcher Jonathan Montoya, who was on a ride-along with Wilson, headed up Chamisa.
Lee, however, began to make plans to spend the night on the trail.
“I watched Bear Grylls’ ‘Survivor Man’ show,” she said. “I started pulling off the branches and pulling off the pine needles – there’s a big pile of them up there – and I had everybody sit on them with their backs to the tree and I covered us with tree branches. But we kept shouting.”
Eventually Wilson and Montoya were able to hear them, Lee was able to hear them in return, and they finally made contact about 7 p.m.
“I lost it” when she saw the state police, Lee said. “I was crying hysterically.”
The family “walked toward us and we made sure they were OK medically,” Wilson said.
Members of the Atalaya Search & Rescue team headed up the trail just about the same time, arriving in time to help carry the youngsters down.
“They were really cold,” Trujillo said later. “We got the kids Happy Meals and made them sit on hot pads.”