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December 3, 2009

(10:37 a.m.) Tree Hunt-Missing

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) — A search of the mountains near the Oregon-California border was called off Thursday after a couple returned from a Christmas tree hunt, saying they got stuck in the snow for two days.

Jennifer and Keith Lee told Jackson County sheriff's deputies their all-wheel drive Subaru got high-centered on a remote road leading into California on the south side of Mount Ashland.

"This morning they got enough rocks to put under the tires to get it freed up," sheriff's Lt. Pat Rowland said.

Rowland said the couple used a cell phone to contact police from a small town near Medford as soon as they heard searchers were looking for them. Deputies were interviewing the couple, who had been missing since Tuesday.

A search began Wednesday with Sno-Cats and ATVs. Jennifer, 38, and Keith, 36, had told their four children, ages 8 to 18, that they hoped to bring back a silvertip fir, a prized tree found only at high elevations.

An initial search by helicopter and ground searches turned up nothing in the Siskiyou Mountains south of Medford, where the couple got stuck for four hours last year while getting their tree, authorities said.

The couple apparently had strayed into a road system that crosses the border into California, 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.

The couple 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.

Keith Lee's uncle said his nephew 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.

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