Woman's condition upgraded to good, search suspended

Woman's condition upgraded to good, search suspended
Ray Chretien, second from left, with his wife, Jennifer, and members of St. Luke's field questions during a news conference Sunday May 8, 2011 at St. Luke's Magic Valley Medical Center in Twin Falls, Idaho. The news conference was related to Rita Eleanor Chretien, who was missing for seven weeks and found Friday, and Albert Chretien, who is still missing. (AP Photo/Times-News, Ashley Smith)
TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — A Canadian woman who survived seven weeks in remote Nevada mountains by rationing trail mix and hard candy is feeling stronger and better nourished after eating salmon and green beans for dinner followed Tuesday by a breakfast burrito, homemade salsa and coffee.

Meanwhile, the search for Rita Chretien's, husband, Albert Chretien, in the northeastern Nevada wilderness was called off Tuesday due to flood warnings and bad weather.

A trio of hunters found Rita Chretien on Friday. She was transported to a hospital in Twin Falls to recover after surviving 48 days in the backcountry. Doctors upgraded her condition to good Tuesday.

"Her spirits are high," said Ken Dey, a spokesman for St. Luke's Magic Valley Medical Center. "The medical team is watching her closely, but indicators of her recovery are very good."

The hospital said it wasn't certain yet when she would be discharged.

Search teams covered dozens of miles Monday looking for her 59-year-old husband and hope to resume the search Wednesday, weather allowing, said Sgt. Kevin McKinney of the Elko County, Nev., Sheriff's Department.

"We didn't find any real items that would indicate where he might be," McKinney said of Monday's search effort. "We didn't have any luck. It's just really difficult conditions out there right now."

The couple from Penticton, British Columbia, strayed onto a northeastern Nevada mountain road en route to Las Vegas in March. Albert Chretien left their van March 22 to find help, and never returned. Searchers were holding out the slim hope he found shelter.

At the family home in southwestern Canada, friends were coping with the shock of learning Rita Chretien was alive and the anguish that her husband's whereabouts were still unknown.

"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. The Chretiens have attended the church for about 12 years.

"We are a people of hope, so we believe he will either be alive with us, or alive with his Lord," Allenbrand said.

Residents say Albert Chretien has been a pillar of the community, volunteering his time and expertise as the owner of a commercial excavating business to help build a church school.

Tony Friesen, who recently met Albert Chretien while working on the school, spent a week in April in eastern Oregon and southern Idaho, riding his motorcycle on rural back roads trying to piece together how and where the couple disappeared.

After seven weeks, he was expecting the worst.

"I never thought, for one second, they would ever be found alive," Friesen said.

Hunters found Rita Chretien, 55, after they spotted her 2000 Chevrolet van mired in mud on a national forest near the Idaho border.

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

She reportedly lost 20 to 30 pounds during the time she was stranded, and family members and doctors say she faced the prospect of death soon 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."

Albert Chretien was being sought Monday by a posse of 30 people using horses and all-terrain vehicles to scour the rugged backwoods of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the largest forest in the lower 48 states at 6.3 million acres.

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 similar to the couple's in an effort to retrace the route Albert Chretien told his wife he hoped to take to Mountain City, 16 miles from the Idaho border.

So far, poor weather has grounded a search helicopter. For Tuesday, the National Weather Service forecast more of the same: snow showers, a high near 45, with a northwest wind gusting as high as 20 mph.

"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 were headed to Las Vegas for a trade show and were last seen on surveillance video March 19 while stopping for gas in Oregon.

They later became the subject of a search by Oregon State Police, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other law enforcement agencies. The city of Penticton, just north of the Washington border, set up a fund to aid the search.

Numerous tips were received in the week after the Chretiens went missing, but none indicated the route they had taken.

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. "We just hope it will be a similar outcome with Mr. Chretien."