Chris Dellis went into the Stanislaus National Forest on Feb. 18 for a night of camping and a day of target shooting. What followed was an epic struggle for survival as the 32-year-old man wandered lost, dehydrated hungry, injured and burdened with a deep despair that he would never look once more upon the faces of his wife and three children.
Sustained by his higher power and digging into a reserve of strength he never knew he possessed, Dellis emerged from the wilderness Wednesday bruised and battered, but feeling incredibly blessed.
“My faith was the only thing that was a constant,” Dellis said as he recuperated at his Modesto home. “Every time it felt like the despair was going to overwhelm me, I’d stop and pray and each time God would show me a glimmer of hope.”
Dellis’ journey began with what was supposed to be a single overnight camping trip to the foothills beyond Coulterville. Arriving at dusk, Dellis set up his camp and went to bed with the multitude of stars hanging over him like a canopy.
He awoke early the next morning with the plan of doing some target shooting before heading back home to his wife Veronnica. He left his camp intending to scout out the area for a good spot to shoot and would return for his gun and other supplies. He left his camp wearing his jeans, a T-shirt, and boots and had nothing else with him, except his keys.
It was during this little scouting excursion that things started to go wrong for Dellis. He said he walked too long and too far, so that he lost track of where his landmarks were.
“I took a couple of wrong turns and just got all turned around,” he said. “It was starting to get dark and I knew it wasn’t a good idea to keep searching for my way back, but I was desperate to find my way back to my car.”
Just how dangerous it is to go walking in the woods at night became apparent to Dellis when he fell into a deep ravine and crushed his chest against a tree stump. Winded and wounded, Dellis clawed his way back up and resumed his desperate search, only to fall a second time.
Hampered by his injuries and feeling the pangs of hunger, Dellis decided to give up his search for the night and start anew in the morning. Using his car key he dug out a small section of ground and huddled up against a tall tree as the darkness deepened around him and the cold settled into his bones.
Back at their Modesto home, Veronnica Dellis, his wife of 15 years, was swimming in a well of worry. Her husband was due home hours earlier and all efforts to reach him had proved fruitless. By that night she had filed a missing person’s report with the Modesto Police Department and was now just left with the seemingly impossible task of waiting.
When dawn broke Monday, Dellis awoke with a determination of heart and soul to find his way back to the family he loved dearly. But it didn’t take long for his body to waiver to the conditions. He was experiencing the affects from a lack of food and water and was without his heart medication. It wasn’t long before the hallucinations began.
“I would see people up on top of a hill and I would feel elated,” Dellis said “I would force my body to rush and climb up it, just to find it was an illusion. This happened a lot and made me even more lost. It was so disheartening and frightening not to be able to trust your eyes and ears.”
During his wanderings Dellis happened upon a creek and kept close to it. Feeling unbelievably hungry, he took whatever nourishment he could find.
“I spotted a garden snake about a foot and a half long. I grabbed its body with one hand and the head with another so it couldn’t bite me,” Dellis said. “I popped off its head, shoved the body in my mouth and started chewing. It was still squirming around and I almost hurled three times, but I knew I had to keep it down. I needed that sustenance.”
A few hours later Dellis caught a lizard and repeated the process.
His hunger may have been temporally staved off, but Dellis was no closer to finding his way out of the woods and for the second night he bedded down in the wilderness with the crescent moon casting a small sliver of light.
That same moon was visible miles away at the Hotel Jeffery in Coulterville where Veronnica was experiencing her own feelings of anxiety and despair. She had spent the day with her family, including her 14-year-old son, plastering the area with flyers detailing her husband’s disappearance. The couple’s church, Northside Assembly of God in Turlock, had rallied to her side and they were assisting in the search efforts with the multiple law enforcement agencies involved. The news of Dellis’ disappearance was being spread on Facebook and prayers from people near and far were being said for the family.
“The dark and depressing moments felt like they were overwhelming me at times, with nothing to do but wait,” Veronnica Dellis recalled. “There were times when it was complete despair and misery. But I still had a hope in me that God would bring him home. You don’t realize how much faith you have until it is all you have to rely on.”
Dellis’ third day in the wilderness was much like his second. His wanderings were becoming more erratic and his search for food more desperate. He did happen upon a discarded water bottle that allowed him to search a little farther from the creek. He cuts and scrapes all over his body. He was blistered and sunburned and was still plagued by tormenting hallucinations. And his thoughts were turning dark.
“I thought I was going to die out there,” Dellis said. “I kept thinking about this cake my wife makes and how I would never get to taste it again. I would think about my children and if I would ever see their faces again. I was shutting down mentally and physically.”
Already fearful for his own mortality, a new terror came to visit Dellis as night fell.
“I had the feeling that I was being stalked by something large,” he said. “I could hear its footsteps falling on the ground.”
Dellis said he tried to remain as quiet as possible, forced to hold his chattering teeth clamped down with his hands, and all the while sending up silent prayers to God to spare him from this newest danger.
It was a sleepless night for Dellis and when the sun rose on his fourth day he was resolved to find his way out of the wilderness or die trying.
“I knew I didn’t have much longer left in me,” he said. “I had to do something or I was going to die.”
Filling up his water bottle and eating a handful of lady bugs Dellis set out again and this time a little luck broke his way. He came across a man-made clearing that led him to a logging road. He followed the road up for about 12 miles, a hike that took him several hours, before he heard the sound of salvation.
“I heard a chopper flying and I started screaming and screaming and then I heard this voice yell ‘hello’ from across the ravine,” Dellis said. “I think I wigged out and started crying. He said to follow his voice and we met at the bottom of the ravine. He gave me a huge hug and said ‘let’s get you home.’”
Back in the hotel in Coulterville, Veronnica heard the sheriff’s department wanted all the family gathered together.
“I was afraid what they were going to tell me,” she said. “I wanted to go outside and say a prayer for strength. I put my hand on the doorknob and at that moment the sheriff came in and said, ‘I have fantastic news.’ I hit my knees at that moment and cried out to God.”
Five hours later the couple was reunited inside a Sonora hospital room.
“It was the most amazing feeling to look into my wife’s eyes again,” Dellis said.