An 84-year-old Menisino woman who went missing during a berry-picking expedition was found injured but alive on Sunday evening, ending a four-day search effort that family members say nearly ended in tragedy.
A volunteer search party located Mary Byman at around 9 p.m. in a swampy area about two kilometres southwest of the Spur Woods area between Menisino and Piney, where she was reported missing on Wednesday afternoon, after becoming separated from her friend.
RM of Piney firefighters laboured for four hours to extract Byman from what an RCMP spokesperson described as "very thick brush" south of Provincial Road 201. She was transported to Bethesda Regional Health Centre with minor injuries.
Family members believe Byman was trying to walk toward her home in Menisino.
Byman’s daughter, Sherry Marginet, and granddaughter, Rachel Geurts, both of Winnipeg, said they were overjoyed to learn Byman was alive just as it seemed all hope was lost.
"All of the searchers were kind of disillusioned and upset," Geurts said, recalling the effect a Sunday thunderstorm had on morale.
"It was horrible. It was pouring rain at that point."
Around 6:30 p.m., RCMP told the family they were concluding the ground search after exhausting the area and finding no leads. A medical examiner was declaring Byman deceased, Geurts said, after determining the odds of a woman her age surviving alone in the bush with no supplies for more than 96 hours were effectively zero.
Geurts said she was driven back to her home in Winnipeg, distraught. Marginet, meanwhile, prepared to deliver the awful news to her father, John Byman, Mary’s husband of 59 years.
At 9:30 p.m., Geurts received a call from her brother.
"He was crying and he just said, ‘We found her, she’s alive.’"
Geurts said the news sounded too good to be true, but a flurry of phone calls from other family members soon confirmed it.
Marginet recalled her 93-year-old father’s reaction: "He sat up and said, ‘This is the best news I’ve ever had in my life.’"
Aggie Listmayer, Byman’s niece, said her aunt’s survival seemed divinely ordained.
"It’s almost like intervention," she exclaimed. "We went from the lowest low to the highest high in a few hours."
Stan Goodman, Byman’s brother-in-law, agreed, calling her endurance "a miracle."
Family members said Byman suffered a broken rib, bruising, and cuts, and is also jaundiced and dehydrated. She had no water with her, but ate the bucket of blueberries she had picked, slept a little, and prayed a lot.
Winnipeg residents Darryl Contois and Bocephas Thompson received hugs from grateful family members gathered at Bethesda on Monday. The father and son, who hail from Pine Creek, Man., were part of the six-member search group that found Byman in what they described as a muskeg dense with downed trees.
Contois and Thompson, who assist with missing persons operations all over Manitoba, arrived at the search area around 1 p.m. on Sunday, just as efforts were beginning to wind down.
Camping gear in tow, Contois told Byman’s family he intended to stay until their family member was found. He asked RCMP if they’d checked a swampy area just beyond the search perimeter, and was told no one believed Byman would’ve headed there.
A departing community member left Contois a gun, in case he stumbled upon a bear. A few hours into the group’s search, Contois said he spotted a deer and fired, but missed. He then heard a faint cry for help, no louder than a whisper, and spent what RCMP said was 40 minutes trying to find its source.
The group eventually found Byman sitting in standing water, weak but conscious. Thompson put his socks on Byman’s feet and built a fire, while others warmed her with blankets.
Contois estimated they were no more than 300 yards beyond the search perimeter. Byman later told him she could occasionally see lights from the search party, but they couldn’t hear her calls.
Contois, who has taken part in dozens of searches over the past 30 years, said he was "amazed" an 84-year-old could survive that long in such rugged conditions.
Described by Geurts as a "feisty" grandmother who cultivates three large gardens and loves watching curling, Byman is expected to spend the remainder of the week recovering in hospital.
Marginet called her mother a "warrior" who grew up in the area and had picked berries for 20 years. She usually stayed within sight of her vehicle and sounded a whistle or car horn when it was time to move on.
Geurts estimated 1,000 people took part in the search, and praised the community for its "unbelievable" support. She said she plans to start an online fundraiser to support Contois’ grassroots group, the Evelyn Memorial Search Team.