Be well. Practice big medicine.

Newman | The Positive Paramedic Project #7 All disasters are local

Emma & I in the really big canoe..

A nugget of EMS organizational wisdom every day. #7 All disasters are local.

In EMS, we’re quite good at conceptualizing how our respective systems will react when stretched well beyond their breaking points. After years of dealing with Murphy’s Law on a patient-by-patient basis, planning for The Big One has become second nature for many of us. And that’s why we need to remember all disasters begin as local affairs – much as each of our individuals clients cross that virtual threshold from regularly-scheduled-life to extraordinarily-difficult-moment and then call 911 [or 999 or 000] for help.

This is a story about how our family encountered a disaster while on vacation – and how we took care of one another in our own little corner of the world. Sometimes that corner was as big as a whole postal code and sometimes it was as small as a 23-foot canoe being tossed about on a big lake in big waters.

Hmmm. Where to start.. well, I should start by saying this was the most fun I have ever had on a family adventure. No kidding. It was just a bit more challenging than most vacations.

I guess I should have known something was up when on Night Two of our family canoe camping adventure, the canoe gods looked down upon us at our incredibly beautiful campsite deep in Killarney Park, saw us swimming on the soft sand beach and decided to throw me a kidney stone to remember the moment a bit more vividly.

I had gotten fairly dehydrated on Day One and never quite got used to the taste of the chemically-purified water supply so the dehydration quickly became pretty serious and my body decided that kidney function wasn’t part of the essential services package it was going to provide. We were roughly four hours paddling [return] from any assistance and it was in the middle of the night so there wasn’t much choice other than to tough it out throughout the night and see what the morning brought with it.

I can tell you that the whole concept of optimal EMS response time seems so ridiculously foreign when you’re a paramedic in intense pain out in the wilderness. In the city we continue to battle for an ambulance system that can support an eight-minute response time. Out there in the dark, I think eight-minutes might have gotten me into my lifejacket and halfway into the canoe and so what then, campers. And no, the cell phones were not working out there, either.

Fortunately, the morning of Day Three brought relief along with another stunning sunrise. Unfortunately, we were scheduled to portage our 23-foot canoe and all of our gear over a 860 metre uphill portage to Clearsilver Lake and I was in pretty crappy shape after a sleepless painful night. We decided to paddle over to the portage start and then see where life took us from there. The paddle was against a stiff headwind and Di and I had to crank it up several notches just to get across the lake. When we pulled in at the portage and recon’d the path with our friends, we quickly realized we were in no shape to tackle the portage.

Our friends continued with the trip while we turned around and made paddle towards the put-in with plans to continue on to our friends’ cottage about three hours south of the park. On our way out of the park we ran into a developing cold front [at the time we had no idea just how vigorous this cold front would become and how much it would affect all of our lives], a 20 mph headwind, and rough water. It was a very tough slog and the 90 minute paddle turned into an all-out marathon. The waves were high enough to break over midships of our borrowed hybrid canoe [rigged with a midship rowing rig for Di].

About halfway into the paddle, Di passed an energy bar down to me and the canoe gods must have giggled out loud at that point. With a serious case of drymouth, I attempted to chew on the gooey mixture of peanuts, chocolate chips, and honey and suddenly found myself choking and unable to breathe. Dianne quickly realized I wasn’t moving any air and started – picture this – to climb towards me over the gear and daughter Emma on the canoe in rough, windswept waters. She and I both must have been thinking the same thing, “No way she’s gonna be able to perform the Heimlich and we’re just moments away from dead guy slumped over in the canoe.” After several long moments, my airway cleared enough to allow a bit of air to pass through and we were back underway.

We made the put-in after a couple of hours of hard paddling and loaded the canoe onto the roof of the van while listening to the heavy rumble of thunder as the gathering storm drew closer. We drove southbound into the most incredible display of lightning any of us had ever witnessed. Strokes that crossed the entire horizon. Multiple flashes that seemed to sustain the image for longer seconds than usual. The storm veered away from us and we arrived at the cottage late in the evening and tumbled into bed.

On Day Four we awakened to another beautiful day with hot, humid, and hazy conditions. We went into town and got some groceries, washed a couple of loads of laundry, filled the van with gas, and treated the girls to ice cream. I remember asking someone if there was any news of severe weather on the way and the woman replied by saying, “No. No rain in the forecast. They said the temperature would drop to the mid-twenties with much lower humidity but no rain.”

I could have sworn I heard the canoe gods whispering as I listened politely and started to scan the horizon thinking there was just no way we were going to lose more than 10 degrees Celsius and a lot of humidity without seeing some pretty intense weather roll though.

There were some building clouds in the distance as we returned to the cottage and by the time Di was preparing dinner, Sophie and I were outside listening to the sound of an approaching thunderstorm. The thunder was low and intense and sounded like baritone growling. I told Sophie I thought the storm was going to pass just to the West of the cottage but that we would have really good seats for the accompanying lightshow. Whew. And sometimes you just don’t realize how close things will come to pass.

The storm hit just as Di served pasta dinner on the table. The lightning and thunder was incessant and the rain came down in great sheets – so intense we could not see the other side of the bay. The wind was very strong but the cottage seemed to be protected from the worst of the gusts because of its location on the downside of a point on the lake. Emma and Sophie were scared but we were able to calm them down by assuring them “they have storms like this here all the time” and that Roanne had been coming to the cottage for more than 25 years and it was still here so we’re safe. Right. Ignorance is definitely bliss.

There were a couple of things that should have tipped us off that all was not normal with this particular thunderstorm. First thing was that although there was non-stop incredibly deep blasts of thunder, we did not see much lightning. Second was the waves on the lake. Instead of the water being pushed forward by the wind, the lake looked as if someone was using an enormous plunger to produce pressure waves from above. I have never seen that before and suspect I may never see it again.

The power failed shortly after the storm began and we watched the rest of it by candlelight. Each time the lightning struck, the phone rang with another collect call from the twilight zone.

The storm ended as the sky took on a surreal orange-green hue that lasted until the sun set and total darkness enveloped the lake. So dark I literally could not see my hand in front of my face as I lay in bed.

Just before midnight I was awakened by an unidentifiable sound and a light coming toward the cottage. I heard voices and went to the window to see Ro and Wayne pulling up in their van – a day and a half earlier than expected. They were ashen-faced and wanted to ensure we were all okay. Of course, we had no idea what was wrong until Roanne kept asking if the tornado had come through here.

Turns out the cold front chased them out of the park in even more dramatic style then when we left and when they got to the exit leading to the cottage, the scene was out of apocalyptic weather stories with tree tops scattered across the roadway, highway exit signs blown down or missing altogether, and multiple trees toppled into to across the roadway. They picked their way through the wreckage and made their way to the cottage half expecting to find us huddled in the rubble or worse. Even as they pulled into the driveway they had to pass a large branch from a tree that had toppled and landed on the high-voltage lines.

The next morning we ventured out and got a sense of the damage in our area and just how close the worst of the storm had come – just across the bay nine very large trees were taken down in one fell swoop.

The experience provided an important lesson about self-sufficiency and situational awareness. While it’s probably a good thing to declare a disaster, I figure it’s much more important to find a way to communicate effectively with the folks trying to cope on the ground. My beloved Calgary Flames cap is off to the neighbours who cut those fallen trees in the first hours after the storm passed so that the roads could be navigated by emergency crews, to the crews from HydroOne who toiled night and day to restore power to the area, and to our friends Ro & Wayne and their daughters for going the extra kilometre to ensure we were all okay.

The storm left a huge trail of destruction across Ontario. We were exceptionally lucky – we didn’t have power, running water, or phone service for four days but we just pulled out our camping gear and enjoyed ourselves the best we could. Other folks lost so much more.

Be well. Practice big medicine.


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