A Canoe Trip Cut Short: Jacqueline Boileau shares her story
July 18, 2018
18 July, 2018
I heard the chopper overhead, circling and circling...and then we heard them set down about a kilometer away. I crawled out of the tent, wearing a shirt and shorts. No socks. No shoes. No glasses. I was crawling for my life.
On Saturday, June 30, 2018, my partner Jim and I set out with our dog Rosie on a week-long canoe trip into Quetico Park. It was a hot, humid day and I was working hard to keep hydrated while we paddled and portaged our canoe and three packs. I was sweating heavily, and when I licked my lips, I noticed the salt taste was particularly strong. So, I drank more water.
The first day is always the hardest. You’re out of shape, not used to paddling for hours and it takes a while to get the canoe balanced properly with packs and dog. The packs are also the heaviest they’ll be the whole trip. Mostly the first few days are spent eating up all the heaviest, most delicious food and easing your muscles into a new routine. It’s a wonderful way to spend a week of holidays and we were excited about the route, which would take us through a section of the Park we hadn’t visited before.
We finally sorted out our canoe trim and were enjoying the smoothness of our brand-new Souris River canoe. But, I was tired so we decided to set up camp early, at about 3:30 pm, on Mosquito Point on Pickerel Lake. We unloaded the canoe, set up the tent and tarp and Jim cooked supper. I was trying to keep my fluids up, because I had started to feel a bit woozy and sick. I thought that maybe my blood sugar was low because we hadn’t had a particularly big lunch and we’d been working hard, so I grabbed a plate of food (delicious smokies from Bogdala’s in Thunder Bay, with potatoes, carrots and onions) and I lay down to eat it. I was sure I’d be feeling better soon.
I wasn’t. I felt worse, so I went to bed early, taking my water bottle with me so I could continue hydrating, and hoping that some sleep would help. It didn’t. I soon realized that my dizziness was getting worse, not better … and then I started throwing up. And throwing up. And throwing up.
Of course, I kept trying to drink water, thinking that I must be dehydrated. I couldn’t keep anything down. Over the next 10 hours, I was sick dozens of times, and while Jim lay on top of his sleeping bag because it was so hot in the tent, I lay completely covered, my body shaking uncontrollably. I was horribly, horribly sick, and I felt like I was going to die. This was not the usual feeling that comes with something like the stomach flu, where you kind of wish you’d die just to end the suffering; this was a terrible fear that I really could die from this, a fear that penetrated even through the worst dizziness and misery I’d ever experienced.
Jim, who spent most of the night lying awake worrying about me, advised me that he planned to paddle out at first light to call for help. If I hadn’t been so sick, I’d have been relieved by this; as it was, I just hoped I could survive that long.
I heard him get up and surprisingly he had cell service at the campsite (there had been none earlier). He immediately called 9-1-1 and was told that an Ornge helicopter was being sent out and should arrive within two hours. The dispatcher asked for specifics on location and we waited for help to arrive.
I heard the chopper overhead, circling and circling (Jim was apparently on the shore waving to let them know they’d found us), and then we heard them set down about a kilometer away. I crawled out of the tent, wearing a shirt and shorts. No socks. No shoes. No glasses. I was crawling for my life.
Jim was grateful that I could make it into the canoe without him having to carry me, and I sat in the bow clinging to the gunnels while he paddled us to the that wonderful orange helicopter perched on a rocky island. My dog Rosie followed along the shore, worried about being left behind, but I was in survival mode so she was on her own. My whole focus was on remaining upright and throwing up over the side of the canoe, but the sight of the four black-clad Ornge paramedics and pilots waiting in front of the helicopter gave me hope. We hit shore and they reached out to pull me to safety. I can’t remember how I got into the helicopter, but soon they had hooked me up to monitors and had started an IV. I opened my eyes once when we left the ground. I focused on the calm and comforting voices of the paramedics, and I felt safe for the first time since my ordeal began.
Now, I’m a person who is endlessly curious and who loves helicopters, so I’m pretty disappointed that I got to ride in one all the way to Kenora but was too sick to care.
When my crew of rescuers transferred me to the land ambulance in Kenora, they asked if I could help with the move. I couldn’t. I had nothing left. I’m not even sure if I was able to raise my arm, so they lifted me.
At the hospital, I was able to remember my name and birthdate, something I’d repeated my whole life, but it was harder to remember my address (I’d moved from Atikokan in spring of 2017 to live with Jim in Gillies, about 40 minutes south of Kakabeka Falls). I managed to come up with it, but then they asked me where I worked. I had no idea. I’d been working for Lakehead Public Schools for three months, and it was like it never happened.
I spent the night in the hospital, and learned that I was suffering from severe hyponatremia, a condition in which blood sodium levels drop to dangerous levels. Without treatment, I could have slipped into convulsions and coma, or I could have had a heart attack. Apparently, electrolytes are kind of important.
I was told that I couldn’t continue to take diuretics for my high blood pressure, because they force the body to excrete sodium. I also learned that sometimes drinking too much water can be dangerous, because it further dilutes sodium levels in the blood. Thirst, not ideology, should be the guiding factor in how much I drink from now on. Ok. Lesson learned. It’s not one I’ll soon forget.
I’m planning another canoe trip with friends for August, and this time I’ll be taking along packets of electrolyte replacement, such as Gastrolyte or Gatorade, to go with the reasonable quantities of water I plan to drink. It’ll be good to finish a canoe trip under my own steam.
To say that I am grateful to the emergency workers at Ornge is an understatement. These strangers, people I can’t describe and wouldn’t recognize if I saw them, these strangers saved my life. All I can say is thanks. Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it. Being alive is awesome.
In case you were wondering, Rosie ended up swimming after the canoe and Jim pulled her in, soaking wet. She’s been keeping a close eye on me since we got back; she doesn’t want to be left behind again.
Jim didn’t have to paddle out on his own. He got hold of his son Eric, who works as a canoe technician for Quetico, and the Park sent a motor boat to rescue him. Apparently a fully loaded Souris River canoe tracks quite nicely behind a boat… not quite the way the trip was supposed to go, but overall a happy ending to the hardest canoe trip either of us had ever experienced.