As a medical student, you are often called upon to be the first-aider on trips. This can sometimes land you in challenging situations, but you shouldn’t shy away from the role. On the flipside, if nothing goes wrong on the trip, then you should feel good about yourself, as it is likely your forward planning that made everything run smoothly. And, as Lydia Bregmen tell us, when it runs smoothly, it can be very lovely indeed.
After flying from London to Toronto, I joined a group of university students as first-aider for two weeks canoeing along one of Ontario’s countless rivers in the unspoiled and uninhabited wilderness of Algonquin Provincial Park. It is called the ‘Land of the Lakes’ due to its’ quarter of a million of them. To me this was the ultimate Canadian wilderness experience with stunning scenery, abundant wildlife and a system of waterways that would even make Huckleberry Finn swoon. Algonquin Outfitters helped us with every aspect of our expedition, including equipment and food provision, final packing, and invaluable guidance and advice from their expert staff prior to setting off on our own.
Our goal: to complete a 100 kilometre self-sufficient canoe trip along the Petawawa River and its’ network of interconnected rivers, lakes and portages.
The purpose: to work as a team, share responsibility, and be tested beyond our comfort zones.
On the river
Initially we required a few days of canoe handling training on Oxtongue Lake involving emergency drills and tackling fast moving turbulent water to help prepare us for going days without other human contact.
Mornings on the lake were dreamlike. We awoke to the sound of birds and the buzz of insects and to the mist dissipating over the lake as the sun began breaking through the trees. We loaded our canoes with watertight and animal proof barrels containing our required food, tents and equipment. After we planned the day’s route we set off on a glorious sunny afternoon from Brent on the edge of Cedar Lake. With two people per canoe, teamwork was a prerequisite to ensure safe passage through the rapids without capsizing. At times the rapids were beyond our skills requiring us to carry our canoes and equipment along rugged portage routes in order to bypass them.
On arrival at our campsite each night tasks were allocated to help set up camp quickly. This included collecting firewood, preparing dinner and putting up tents. Later we would sit around the campfire under the starry sky and exchange stories while wolves howled in the distance. Every night our barrels were roped up into trees away from the tents to prevent luring wildlife in search of food. We experienced the importance of this on our fourth night when a black bear wandered through the camp attracted by the remains of the trout we had caught the day before.
Some days were testing when the clouds moved in and the heavens opened. Campfires were difficult to light, temperatures dropped to near freezing and we were all drenched. On other days we could rest our paddles and drift along in the current. This gave us the opportunity to observe a black bear on the lake shore, the loons catching fish in the shallows, dragonflies dancing on the water surface or the hardworking beaver building it’s winter home.
As the most senior medical student in the group I was given the responsibility of being the first aider. Thankfully only minor problems arose – cuts, bruises, splinters, sunburn, infections, dehydration, insect bites, diarrhoea and frostnip. It doesn’t take much imagination, with the remoteness and strenuous lengths of paddling, portaging and dangerous rapids, to see how things could go horribly wrong – fatal drownings, wildlife attacks (bear, wolf, moose and poisonous snakes), as well as cellulitis from open wounds or fractures and sprains or dislocations.
It was an arduous and at times challenging trip, however the vastness of Ontario’s rugged beauty was spectacular throughout the expedition. There was an overwhelming sense of tranquillity as we spent days gliding over glassy lakes, manoeuvring our canoes down rapids, and relaxing on warm sandy beaches that were guarded by monstrous granite cliffs and dense towering woodland. This was a wonderful opportunity and I would recommend this part of the world to anyone with an appetite for adventure.