She could have easily ended up as another name on Canada's long list of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Now, for the first time, the woman, whose identity remains concealed under a court-ordered publication ban, is speaking out to VICE News about the sexual assault that nearly ended her life and left her wandering in the vast wilderness of western Alberta for 12 days.
Her attacker, 38-year-old Kevin Gladue, was convicted on February 25 of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to six years in prison.
It was the end of an ordeal that began in the summer of 2013, when the woman decided to go off-roading with some friends near her home in O'Chiese First Nation territory, not far from the town of Rocky Mountain House.
Her uncle was driving the truck when it became stuck. After several attempts to get it out, he and the other passengers went to get help, leaving the woman at the truck with Gladue.
He seemed like a harmless guy, she said. The two had worked directly across from each other at the O'Chiese First Nation school, where he was the school cook.
Uncertain how long her friends would take, she fell asleep in the back of the truck.
She woke up to find Gladue attempting to pull her pants off. Fighting with him, she tried to get away but Gladue chased her and struck her with an object.
With no shoes and her jaw broken in two places, the woman fled into the woods. By now it was late afternoon. She says she tried to backtrack to find the road they had driven in on but she became disoriented and ended up along the Baptiste River.
"When it started to get dark, that's when I got scared because I didn't know where I was, so I just stayed in one spot the whole night," said the woman in an interview with VICE News.
The first night she slept under a tree and only moved little by little up the river, as it rained heavily for the next several days and her jaw was in immense pain. She drank water from the river but her injury was so bad the water leaked out.
"Underneath my jaw and on the side of my jaw there were two holes, deep cuts, right through my bone," she said. Uncertain of how she would survive, she began to pray.
It was at this point that she saw the bear.
"I saw brown fur coming up the hill and that's when I thought… I was going to be her supper," she said quietly, from where she now works. She thought the bear must have been attracted to the smell of blood. "She just smelled me, and then I closed my eyes. And when I opened them, she was gone."
'I saw brown fur coming up the hill and that's when I thought … I was going to be her supper.'
Uncertain of what to do or where to go, she spotted the bear a second time on the other side of the river, and got a strong impression she should follow it. At times she traveled in the river itself, walking and floating with the current, holding a log that a beaver had chewed at both ends. By the time the Baptiste met the fast-moving North Saskatchewan River, she got out and traveled on foot. Winding down trails when she found them, at one point wading through a swamp, the woman ate berries and slept during the day when she could. At night she would hear whispering voices up and down the river.
Nothing felt quite real, she said. At one point she sat by the river for two days and cried.
"That's the part where I learned about courage and gratitude," she said.
One day, while eating berries and attempting to get her strength up, the woman said she saw a deer acting strangely, jumping around playfully like a dog. After following it for some time she came to an old road. Tying the string of her tracksuit tighter to support her aching hip while still following the deer, she began to walk down the road. After what seemed like a long time, she then emerged onto a well-used road.
In the distance, she spotted the glint of two trucks approaching.
"As I got further down the road I saw something walking, I wasn't sure what it was, I couldn't really tell because her jumpsuit was a beige color," recalled Mike Rempel, an oil and gas operator from nearby Drayton Valley. In the area south of the Brazeau Dam to check on the company wells, he said he initially thought she was a deer, but when he pulled his truck up he saw it was a woman.
"It was brutal. It was bad. I could barely make out what she was saying to me because her jaw was broken so bad she couldn't even really move her mouth," Rempel, who quickly cleaned off his seat and told her to get in, told VICE News in an interview.
At a nearby truck stop, he phoned 911, and the operator confirmed that the woman had indeed been missing for just under two weeks. The date was July 26 — her mother's birthday.
"It's a very unforgiving territory, there's a lot of swamp. I've personally seen bear and cougar out there myself. Wolves," said Rempel, who testified at Gladue's trial and said he was amazed that anyone could survive, injured and shoeless, in that terrain for so long.
It has been years of recovery for the woman, who has endured multiple surgeries to fix her jaw, which became infected and has been implanted with plates. It still has not completely healed.
Not long after she was found, the woman said she attended sweat lodge ceremonies and asked the elders about the bear and deer she saw. She was told they were spirits, and that she was supposed to speak the truth about her experience and to get her story out to help other people.
"Speak up. Don't be silent about people who hurt native women. A lot of people are silent, they're too scared to talk," she said. "If you're being abused in any way, get out."
_A previous version of this story contained details that remain under a court ordered publication ban. _The story has been amended to omit those details, and VICE News apologizes for the mistake.__
Follow Julie Chadwick on Twitter: @JulieHChadwick
Maps by Emma O'Neill