An Alberta woman lost in northern bush for two weeks faced off with a bear, ate berries and sipped water from streams before she found a remote hunting cabin she believes saved her life.
Rhonda Cardinal recalled Thursday how she broke a small window to get into the cabin.
Inside, she found more water, canned food and socks for her blistered and infected feet.
"I figured it was a matter of life and death," said the 42-year-old woman, now resting at home with her parents in Calling Lake, Alta., a small community 200 kilometres north of Edmonton.
Ms. Cardinal said she spent a couple of nights at the cabin before she felt strong enough to trek again and look for help.
On Wednesday, after a short walk, she came across a road and within minutes waved down an oilfield worker driving by in his truck. He helped her climb inside and, through tears, she told him her story.
Ms. Cardinal said positive thoughts and prayers helped her get through the ordeal. But now that she's safe and sound at home, the owner of the cabin has phoned her demanding she pay for damages.
"He was worried about the window," she said. "I was starving and I was thirsty. … I had no choice."
RCMP Sergeant Brian Scott in Athabasca, Alta., said he's not aware of the complaint but the woman can't be blamed for the break-in.
"I think I would have done the same thing," he said.
Sgt. Scott said a relative reported Ms. Cardinal missing after she walked away from another hunting cabin about 20 kilometres north of Calling Lake on July 31.
Mounties searched on quads, then brought in a helicopter. Wildlife officers and civilian volunteers joined the search and, with as many as 58 people one day, continued looking for about a week.
Sgt. Scott said the group covered a huge area of land but found no sign of the woman. The search was called off last Friday.
Ms. Cardinal said she can't explain why she left the first cabin. She "blacked out," woke up lost and started wandering through the bush.
She said she heard a helicopter but assumed no one was able to see her. So she kept walking, often through soggy muskeg. Each night she fell exhausted under a tree and tried to sleep.
After a few days, she ditched her wet and torn shoes and ripped up her T-shirt to wrap around her blistering feet. Wearing a tank top and pants, without a jacket, she kept walking.
One day, a black bear startled her, she said. It aggressively stood up on its back legs.
"We were just looking at each other. I thought he was going to attack me," Ms. Cardinal said. "I didn't panic or anything. He went down. I walked away slowly the other way and he just walked the other way."
Ms. Cardinal said she was relieved to eventually find the cabin but knew she couldn't stay there forever. After two nights, she set out again, this time with her feet wrapped in towels and stuffed inside some huge wool socks.
Christopher Raddi, a gas plant operator for Husky Energy, was driving from Athabasca, Alta., to meet a helicopter that regularly takes him to a work camp.
Just that morning he read a story in the newspaper about a missing woman, but he was still surprised to see a person standing along the remote stretch of road, especially one that appeared to be wearing fluffy slippers."
The woman was emotional and exhausted, but most of all relieved, Mr. Raddi said. "I told her, 'You know, I think you've got a few people concerned about you.'"
RCMP estimate the location was about 22 kilometres from where Ms. Cardinal was reported missing.
Mr. Raddi drove her to the helicopter that was waiting for him and its pilot took them all to Athabasca. Paramedics took MS. Cardinal to the hospital for an exam.
Mr. Raddi said he's glad he could help and can't quite believe the woman fared so well. "This part of the country is very unforgiving.
"I'm totally amazed at her will to survive. It's pretty inspiring."