Volunteers say Mary Byman was cold, wet, barefoot and smiling when they found the 84-year-old huddled under a tree in southern Manitoba after days lost alone in the woods.
“A cold beer and a hot tub — that was her two requests,” said Crystal Leigh, one of the rescuers who located Byman late Sunday night near Piney, Man., after she got lost while picking blueberries.
“She thought when she was in the hospital, that’s what they should give her first, was a cold beer,” Leigh said.
Byman had been missing since Wednesday after getting separated from a friend while berry picking in the Spur Woods area between Piney and her home community of Menisino, about 125 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg.
Byman’s disappearance triggered a days-long search by dozens of volunteers from across the province.
“We’re just elated,” Roxanne Byman, one of Mary Byman’s daughters, said Monday morning about the successful search. “We’re beyond happy.”
Sherry Lyn Marginet, another of Mary Byman’s daughters, said her mom is recovering in a hospital in Steinbach, about 50 kilometres south of Winnipeg.
“First thing in the morning when I got a hold of her, I said, ‘You know, you’re one tough bird.’ She says, ‘Oh yeah, I am,'” Marginet said Monday. “She’s just a hearty person who loves life, and she has tenacity and she wouldn’t give up.”
‘The strongest woman on Earth’
The search had officially ended Sunday evening when Leigh and her husband, John Friesen, drove from their home in Piney to help look.
They quickly found Darryl Contois, a determined volunteer with decades of search-and-rescue experience who had decided to camp in the area with his son before continuing the search.
“I told my son … we can’t give up. She’s not found,” Contois said Monday. “I said, ‘It’s up to us, I guess, to go find her.'”
Contois — who runs a volunteer search and rescue group called Evelyn Memorial Search Team — said he and his son were hunting a deer when they heard a gunshot and a faint cry for help.
The group and a few others followed the cry into the gnarled mass of fallen trees and overgrown ravines. Friesen said they fired more shots as they went, each one followed by another shout for help, until, at last, they heard her voice close by.
“I knew it wasn’t just imagination. It was really someone calling back to us. That was amazing,” Friesen said. “And just seeing her … she had a smile. [That’s] what I can’t forget.”
They found Byman exhausted, soaked and freezing, crouched under a tree in a shallow hole filled with water. She told them she had been there for a day, unable to keep on walking.
“I said, ‘You’re not going to spend another night in this bush,'” Contois said. “I looked up to the sky and I said, ‘Thank you God.'”
She was barefoot, Friesen added, and had lost her shoes days earlier.
“She is just amazing. She must be the strongest woman on Earth to have gone through what she went through,” said Leigh, who lay down with Byman in the water to warm her before they lifted her out and Contois’s son built a fire.
“She was just in the best of spirits. She kept her sense of humour.”
Visiting with a box of beer
After finding Byman, the group called police and emergency services for help. It took crews two hours to cut through the brush to get to where they were — about 2.5 kilometres from where Contois fired the original shot.
Before Byman got to the hospital, Friesen and Leigh said she promised them she wouldn’t be picking berries again any time soon.
“I don’t believe that at all. My mom will be blueberry picking till she drops,” Marginet said, laughing. “We’re getting her a high-visibility vest.”
She said her family plans to have a thank you party with all the people who helped find her mom.
On Monday, Friesen said he and his wife also hoped to spend time with Byman soon.
“We’ll definitely go visit. We’re definitely going to go there with a box of beer.”