Sam Cook: Friends show their mettle in wilderness emergency

A shard of quarter-moon smiled down on us through the boughs of the red pines. We had a good camp. The night fire was burning, and we had plenty of wood.

Sam Cook
Sam Cook column

A shard of quarter-moon smiled down on us through the boughs of the red pines. We had a good camp. The night fire was burning, and we had plenty of wood.

Four of us had made this ice-out trip to a border-country lake in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park north of Ely. Catching lake trout was the stated goal, but all of us know it's really about woodsmoke and moonlight and the pull of a paddle.

Already, Steve had caught a couple of these muscular trout, one that would go at least 7 pounds. When the ice has gone out just a few days before, the trout can be almost anywhere in the water column. They're hungry.

With the fire reflecting on our faces that first night, we thought that's what the rest of the trip would be like. We had four days. We had some other lakes in mind. We had fish breading and some instant mashed potatoes.

But all of that changed early the next morning, sometime after the moon had set. A medical issue forced an emergency evacuation, and I was the unfortunate passenger. We'll spare you the gristly details, other than to say it was a fast paddle, a cool towboat trip, an ambulance ride to Ely and another to Duluth.


No, it wasn't a heart deal. And, no, I didn't put an axe into my leg.

What's important here is the way good friends and solid wilderness travelers come through when a situation like ours develops a few miles back in the bush. These guys were good. They paddled like madmen to lug my sorry frame out of the woods. When they got to a satellite phone halfway to civilization, they called in reinforcements from the outside.

It's no fun being the victim. None of us likes it. I had made the transition that morning in camp, when I agreed that we had better make a hasty exit. I plopped myself in the bottom of the canoe and turned things over to my buddies. There. That was it. From then on, I was dead weight. A liability stumbling along the portages. And at least three packs worth of weight in the canoe.

Here's to my buddies. To Steve, who happens to be a physician as well as a catcher of lake trout, who first diagnosed the problem in camp. Here's to Steve and Mark, who paddled me out of the woods.

Here's to Al, the maintenance man at the Quetico ranger station with the satellite phone. Here's to everyone at LaTourell's Moose Lake Outfitters who raced the towboat up to the border and drove me down the Fernberg Road until we met the ambulance.

Here's to Barb and Pete on the ambulance crew and the emergency-room staff at the Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital -- including the nurse who gave me the fictitious name of Lois Johnson in fear I would write about her. So, I won't, Kathy.

Here's to the medical team at

Essentia-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth, who solved the problem and refilled me with blood. Here's to the unknown people who had earlier donated enough O-positive that it was there when the nurses needed to hang it beside my bed.


Here's to Roger and Fred from Ely, who paddled back in to meet Gary, whom we had left behind at camp, to haul out the gear. Here's to the kind nurse who offered me the robe when I was walking laps on Seven West that last day, apparently with my gown's backside flapping. How's a guy to know?

Here's to Phyllis, who's always there, and my son and all the folks who stopped by Room 7115.

And, finally, here's to the texture of grass and the smell of rain and a yellow dog coming up for some serious nuzzling.

It's good to be out.

Let's go fishing.

Sam Cook is a columnist and outdoors writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or . Follow him on Twitter at .

Related Topics: HEALTH
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