Woman stranded for weeks upgraded to solid food

Woman stranded for weeks upgraded to solid food »Play Video
Albert and Rita Chretien.

TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — A Canadian woman who lived off nothing but trail mix, fish oil tablets and candy for seven weeks in the remote Nevada mountains was upgraded to a solid diet Monday, and hospital officials said her spirits were "extremely high" despite nearly starving to death.

A search team mounted horses and all-terrain vehicles in a bid to find her husband, 59-year-old Albert Chretien. He set off on foot March 22 to get help after the couple got stuck on a muddy road in northeastern Nevada while on a road trip to Las Vegas.

Rita Chretien, 56, of Penticton, British Columbia, was scheduled to remain at St. Luke's Magic Valley Medical Center in Twin Falls, where she was upgraded to a regular diet Monday morning.

She started with yogurt and dairy products and told doctors she prefers rice over potatoes and salads, the hospital said. She will have her choice of six small regular meals per day as she continues physical therapy.

"Her spirits are extremely high," said hospital spokesman Ken Dey said in a statement. "The medical team is watching her closely, but indicators of her recovery are very good."

Hunters found Rita Chretien on Friday, after they spotted her van mired in mud on a national forest road in Elko County, Nev., near the Idaho border.

Alone in the rugged and isolated country, Rita Chretien survived on a tablespoon of trail mix, a single fish oil pill and one hard candy a day, her son, Raymond Chretien, said Sunday.

She reportedly lost 20 to 30 pounds during the time she was stranded, and family members and doctors agree she faced the prospect of death had she not been found.

Raymond Chretien said his mother relied on the Bible during her ordeal, returning again and again to Psalm 86, which includes the passage: "Hear my prayer, Lord, listen to my cry for mercy. When I am in distress, I call to you, because you answer me."

Back in Penticton, the Protestant church the couple has attended for about 12 years held a special celebratory service on Sunday — Mother's Day — to honor Rita Chretien's reunion with her family.

"After seven weeks of prayer and anticipation for Al and Rita to be found, it was like receiving somebody back we thought had died," said the Rev. Neil Allenbrand of the Church of the Nazarene. "We are a people of hope, so we believe he (Albert Chretien) will either be alive with us, or alive with his Lord."

Rita Chretien told investigators she last saw her husband when he set off for help on foot with a GPS unit three days after they got stuck.

Searchers acquired a GPS like the couple's in an effort to retrace the route Albert Chretien told his wife he hoped to take to the town of Mountain City, 16 miles from the Idaho border.

Rain and snow kept a search helicopter grounded Monday, but about 30 people continued the hunt on horses and ATVs.

Map of the search area

With temperatures still in the 30s, search team members say they're holding out hope that Albert Chretien found shelter in one of the old ranch or mining buildings that dot the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the largest in the lower 48 states at 6.3 million acres.

"It's very rugged," said Lesli Ellis, a Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman. "We're hoping for the best. There are areas of shelter up there."

The Chretiens own a commercial excavating business and were headed to Las Vegas for a trade show. They were last seen on surveillance video March 19 while stopping for gas in Baker City, Ore., a small ranching town about two hours west of Boise.

The two later became the subject of a search by Oregon State Police, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other law enforcement agencies. Vehicles and aircraft scoured the back roads that crisscross the remote region near the Snake River where they were last spotted.

The city of Penticton, on the shores of Okanagan and Skaha lakes just north of the Washington border, set up a fund to aid in the search for the couple.

Numerous tips came in during the week after they went missing, but none indicated the route the couple had taken. The Canadian police major crime unit was involved because of concern the two were victims of foul play.

Penticton Mayor Dan Ashton said Rita Chretien's discovery was almost unbelievable.

"If it's not a miracle, it's damn close to a miracle, that she was able to survive for that period of time," Ashton said Monday. "We just hope it will be a similar outcome with Mr. Chretien."

The couple got stuck after taking a scenic detour on their way south.

Raymond Chretien said that during the intervening seven weeks, his mother got out of the van and walked every day. "She had books she was reading," he said. "She had time to read some twice."

The Chretiens' ordeal is another reminder of the danger unprepared motorists face when they stray on rarely traveled back roads with the threat of foul weather.

In 2006, TV personality James Kim died of hypothermia after he, his wife and two children became stranded in the remote mountains of Oregon.
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Associated Press writer Josh Loftin in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.