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Seven weeks in wilderness: Rita Chretien recalls her nightmare

This was the last time Rita Chretien saw her husband Al. Every day for 49 days Rita Chretien ate candies and trail mix and fish oil vitamins to survive. She was stranded in Nevada.

Handout photo/Handout photo

Everything that could go wrong went wrong in the worst way possible for Albert and Rita Chretien, trapped in the bleak winter mountains of Nevada.

The GPS system of the holidaying B.C. couple's van sent them down a treacherous back road. Mud swallowed the axles of their van as Mr. Chretien, 59, and Mrs. Chretien, 56, attempted to dig their way out and return to the main road. Their frantic calls to 911 were cut off.

On the morning of March 21, Mr. Chretien set out alone, with the treacherous GPS unit and map in hand, to look for help. It was the last time Mrs. Chretien would see her husband of 39 years – and just the third day of what became a seven-week ordeal.

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Five months after her unlikely rescue, Mrs. Chretien is finally ready to say what went so horribly awry on what should have been an enjoyable road trip to a Las Vegas trade show from their home in Penticton.

When they crossed the Idaho-Nevada border, the couple decided to check their paper-map route against the GPS for a shortcut to their hotel reservation in Jackpot, Nev. If it had been July, and not March, the route given would have taken the Chretiens through a beautiful canyon road with breathtaking views.

Unaware that GPS directions omit seasonal conditions, the Chretiens took a road that became impassable after nine kilometres of travel. They bogged down in mud, climbed a hill and called 911. Repeatedly, their cellphone reached an operator but could not hold the signal long enough to establish location, so the discouraged Chretiens slept the first night in their 2000 Chevy Astro van.

On the second day, they successfully dug their way out with a small shovel, but in their first attempt to back out of their predicament, they sunk the axle deep into another mud hole.

"We just couldn't believe it happened. Al cried, I cried, and we prayed, 'Lord, what are going to do now, we feel foolish you know, doing this, but it's happened, so what do we do now?' " Mrs. Chretien said.

When the couple finally set out for help, they headed in what turned out to be the wrong direction, away from fully stocked cabins just two kilometres away that could have kept them safe and warm until search parties located them. Instead, they went the opposite way, then turned back to the mired van when Mrs. Chretien's swollen knee gave out on her.

It was then that Mr. Chretien set out alone. "We prayed, and we cried, it was very emotional, we had not cried so deeply for years …" Mrs. Chretien said.

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It would be early May before she saw another human being, as she lingered in the van with nothing more than water, a handful of food and her faith to sustain her.

She says she survived by reading her Bible and by constantly talking to God. Day 49 was the only time Mrs. Chretien concluded she would likely die in the wilderness. After her daily walk for water, she was overcome with weakness. "I had fallen and could barely crawl back to the van, and I thought, this must be it," she said. She crawled inside her van to lie down on its back bench and die.

"I was quite content with that and I went to sleep with the child's prayer, 'I pray the Lord my soul to keep.' About two hours later, I awoke to a noise and it was the ATVs coming round the corner, and for some reason I jumped to my feet, yanked that door open and flagged them down," Mrs. Chretien said.

The official search for Albert Chretien has been called off, but with hunting season in full swing in the area, hunting guides are again looking for him.

Mrs. Chretien holds only faint hope. "I do know that our days are numbered, each one of us, it says that in the Scriptures, God knows how many days we're going to live. Maybe his days were up? If he's deceased, he's with the Lord," she said.

She has found comfort in that thought, and in a different kind of memorial: She can be seen in the streets of Penticton, still driving the van she recovered from the Nevada wilderness.

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Special to The Globe and Mail

Editor's note: an earlier version of this story online and in Wednesday's newspaper incorrectly stated the couple became stranded on their way home from Las Vegas. They were actually lost on their way to Las Vegas. This story has been corrected.

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