Last night sounds from outside the boat disturb my sleep twice. The first time, I hear a light drizzle tapping on the cabin roof around 3am and go outside to grab the loose seat cushions and stow them below. The noise at 4am is much more disturbing. A rather loud clunk abruptly awakens me. There is nothing good about a loud clunk when a boat is at anchor. I scramble up the ladder in the early morning light, and immediately determine the cause of the noise. The tide has gone out, way out. We’re at a near zero tide. Although the boat is tethered with a stern line, we’ve been gently pressed in toward the island by a slight breeze. On the island side of the boat, a seaweed covered rock shelf is above water, perhaps 15 feet from the starboard side of the boat. The rock shelf slants gradually downward, into the water and, directly beneath our starboard stern corner, is a foot or less beneath the hull. When the boat gets pushed even slightly by the light wind, hull is bumping rock. I quickly let out slack on the stern tie line, and then hurry to the bow and draw in as much anchor rode as I can. I pull until the boat is held taut between the two lines. We now have two feet under us, but I have pulled in all but 30 feet of anchor rode. I had set it well yesterday, the wind is light, the tide is at its lowest ebb, and the stern line prevents any swing. I go back to bed.
When I rise at 6am on the 13th day of our cruise, the boat is peacefully floating in several feet of water. I adjust the stern line, put the coffee water on, and gather my fishing gear for a try with the rock fish. After downing a cup of coffee, I clamber into the dinghy with my fishing gear and putt slowly over to a channel between two islets. I immediately hook a nice rock fish, which I slip onto my stringer. In less than 30 minutes I catch 5 rock fish, a sculpin, a flounder, and a greenling. Catching fish for dinner and crab trap bait won’t be a problem in these waters. I save the 3 largest rock fish, return to the boat so Sandy can pass me the filet knife and a zip loc bag, and then go ashore to filet the fish. They will provide us dinner after we leave Echo Bay.
We’re only 3 miles from Echo Bay, and a nice breeze is ruffling the water out in the channel. I entertain visions of tacking my way across to the marina. Around 9am I uncleat the end of my stern line and slowly wind it back up on its reel. I hoist the main sail, raise the anchor, slowly motor out between a pair of small islands, and turn far enough to port so that the main can fill. I run out the jib and coast along at a stately 2 1/2 knots. I’d be content to maintain this speed until reaching the marina. However, as with many plans on this eventful day, this one is not to be. After two tacks our speed drops to less than a knot. I’m seeing boats from all directions heading for Echo Bay. Even though I called yesterday to reserve a slip, I decide we need to motor up and get in. As we near the entrance to the marina I see around 8 boats, large power boats and sailboats, milling about, waiting their turn to move in and get tied up. The radio chatters with talk between arriving boats and the dock attendant. The instructions are simple: get in line and wait your turn. Soon it’s our turn, and we head for our assigned slip. Since we won’t need power (good old solar panels), we are directed all the way inside, to dock 4. The busy dock attendant helps us with our lines, and we are moored at Pierre’s Echo Bay Marina. The sun is shining brightly. It is good to be here.
We immediately begin spotting familiar boats and friends we’ve met along our way: Spindrift, Second Wind, Diamond Wave and others. As with most remote marinas we have visited, this place feels cheerful and friendly. I walk up to the office to register and sign us up for a two night sstay, showers, garbage disposal, tonight’s fish and chip dinner, and tomorrow night’s prime rib dinner. I return to the boat to find Sandy busy straightening up and cleaning the cabin. We expect the couple from Diamond Wave to stop by for a look at our boat. It seems they may be interested in downsizing to a MacGregor some day. Sandy wants things to be presentable before they come on board. I help out and tend to a few boat chores. Before we know it, my watch reads 3pm. We decided to postpone showers until tomorrow. Since it was getting late in the day and close to happy hour (5pm), I felt we should put off walking over to Billy Proctor’s museum. I didn’t want to feel rushed while looking at his collection of stuff. I also wanted to allow plenty of time to just hang out and talk with this venerable source of local lore. Instead, I suggested we walk around the marina grounds for a while.
We stroll up the ramp and follow a small path which wanders around through the trees and past several buildings. Out in a clearing we find a multi colored patch of wildflowers. Someone must have scattered seed to get them started. I compose photographs from several angles.
We still have time to burn. We walk a little further and spot the ricketty footbridge which marks the start of the trail to Billy Proctor’s museum. Sandy suggests that we just walk a ways down the trail. We can return tomorrow and actually visit the museum. We seem drawn in by the crude dirt path which winds unevenly around rocks and trees, over roots, up and down slippery dirt steps which have been roughly cut into the slope. We often walk rough trails like this, so it’s no big deal. I’m in the lead. I step slowly and deliberately at a potentially slippery place, so Sandy can see where to put her foot. She slips anyway, but quickly gets up, and we continue a short distance to the most difficult terrain on the trail. Dirt steps have been cut into the steep slope for a distance of 10 or 12 feet; a thick length of rope hangs down, enabling us to grab on and steady ourselves as we scramble to the top of the rise. On the other side, more steps and another rope assist the descent. I’m beginning to wonder just how much further we should go before turning back. I glance behind me, and see Sandy shuffling along, curiously slower than usual. I pause at the top of a small rise and wait for her to catch up. I get a disturbing, uneasy feeling as she stops alongside me. Her jaw is set and she gazes intently off to the side, refusing to look me in the eyes. I know that look. She’s upset with me. I try to figure out what I’ve done, recalling her stumble and my failure to reach back and help her up. That’s it. The silent pause extends into several awkward minutes. She’s still not speaking to me. Finally, I risk a few words to her but her silence continues, and she still won’t look at me. I suggest we sit down and take a little break. She sits on a small log on one side of the trail. I sit across the trail from her. Several groups of hikers pass between us, on their way back for happy hour. I’m not feeling very happy, wondering what she’s upset about. I ask her if I’ve done something wrong. Is she feeling okay? I suggest we start back for the boat. She’s still not responding to me. We take a few steps. She seems unsteady. I notice that her tightly set jaw sags a bit on the right side, and some drool has escaped the corner of her mouth. A dreadful realization begins to displace my naivety and unwillingness to believe what I’m seeing. This looks like a stroke!
Not knowing what else to do, I grab hold of her and tell her we must walk back to the marina. I walk closely behind her, maintaining a strong grip under her arms and around her chest, steadying and guiding her forward. I dread the steep pitch, and have no idea how we’ll be able to cross it. She grabs hold of the rope and, with me pushing from behind, she somehow slowly ascends the series of dirt notches to the top. I circle around her and scramble partway down, ahead of her. I turn her into the face of the slope so she can back down. I grab her ankles from below, alternately squeeze first one, then the other, to signal which foot to step with as I guide her feet into successive footholds. We’re almost down when I lose my footing and fall to my knees. I’ve torn a 6 inch rip in the left knee of my jeans. I get up quickly, before Sandy has a chance to slip, and we pause at the base of the slope. We appear to be the last hikers on this lonely stretch of trail as we slowly, tentatively shuffle back toward the marina. We carefully step down the ramp toward the floating docks and begin encountering other boaters, chatting casually in clusters on the sterns of boats or making their way toward the dining hall for happy hour. We are in a different world and I somehow feel embarrassed over our situation. I don’t want to intrude on theirs. Instead of reaching out for help or assistance, I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. I am focused on getting Sandy back to the security of our boat.
Sandy still can’t look me in the face; she’s still silent. I see that she’s dragging her right foot. Somehow I get her back on the boat, down the ladder and into the cabin. I persuade her to lay down, and I tell her I’m going to try and find a doctor. I’ll be right back. I hurry up the dock, toward the marina office. It’s just past 4:30pm and closed for the day. There are only a few folks at the dining hall. I ask if anyone knows where Pierre is. They think he’s back toward the Lodge. I walk at forced pace back to the boat to check on Sandy. She’s just like before. I tell her I’m going out again to find a doctor. I return to the dining hall and find 20 or so people there. I ask if anyone is a doctor or knows if there is one on a boat. No one knows of any doctors at hand. I encounter a marina employee, I ask her to help me find Pierre and I tell her I think my wife is having a stroke. I can hardly choke the words out. She locates Pierre near the lodge, but he isn’t aware of any doctors among the boaters in the marina. In the midst of this scene I hear the welcome words “There’s a doctor up here.” I look up to the upper deck at the lodge and see a young guy looking down at me. “I’m a doctor. I’ll be right down.” He quickly introduces me as Will, and as we walk to our boat, he asks me to describe the symptoms and he asks me when they first started. I’m amazed at how difficult it is to think back and establish an estimated timeframe. I don’t want to overstate or understate the time. 4:15pm is my best guess. It is now about 5:15. Will enters the cabin, introduces himself to Sandy and does a quick but purposeful examination. He tells me she’s had a stroke, and it’s imperative for her to get to a hospital as quickly as possible. Pierre is on the scene and calls for the medevac helicopter. The chopper will arrive in about 40 minutes, flying out of Port McNeil, I think.
My mind feels scrambled as I try to stay calm and think clearly. Pierre tells me not to worry about the boat. They’ll take good care of it in our absence. Will asks me about Sandy’s medical history and what prescriptions she is taking. I show him her two pill bottles. I ask him what I should bring with me on the helicopter. He tells me to grab toiletries and personal items. I grab an empty West Marine tote and begin tossing Sandy’s overnight things, my toothbrush, and a few other things into it. I remember to pull out our passports. I stuff them into a zipper pocket in the laptop computer case. I slip the cellphone into my pocket and then check to see if we happen to have 110 volt charging cords for the computer and cell phone with us. I’m in luck. Sandy had the foresight to put both of them into the computer case, even though we normally only use the 12 volt charging cords on boat trips. My eyes scan the boat, but I can’t think of anything else to grab. Someone says that the helicopter is on its way, and will be here in 15 minutes.
Will, Pierre and a few others discuss how to best get Sandy to the heliport. It’s across a short stretch of water, at the head of the bay. I suggest that I motor the boat over to the dock just below the heliport. That sounds like a good idea, so I start the engine, back out of the slip with a dock attendant on board, and motor across. Helping hands secure the boat and we wait for the helicopter to arrive. Dr. Will is there to assist, and to transfer information to the paramedics when they arrive. Someone says “I hear the chopper” and soon, the dark blue medevac helicopter circles overhead and quickly settles into a small clearing just beyond a thin screen of trees near the head of the dock. Two EMT’s walk purposefully down to the boat. One carries a large valise filled with medical gear. Following well established procedures, they check Sandy’s vital signs. They talk with Dr. Will and unfold the clamshell stretcher on the dock, alongside our boat. I stand by helplessly as the EMT’s assist Sandy up, out of the cabin, into the cockpit, and onto the stretcher.
While preparing her to be moved up to the helicopter, one of the EMT’s tells me I won’t be able to come along in the helicopter. There isn’t enough room. This news shocks me, and I immediately begin to protest. My urgency apparently hits home and the EMT says they’ll see if there’s a way to fit me in. By the time they’ve carried Sandy up to the helicopter the pilot and EMT’s have figured out how to slide Sandy’s stretcher far enough forward to allow one of the EMT’s to squeeze in behind her. It’s a relief to know that I won’t be left behind.
The pilot goes through her preflight procedures and finally lifts off. There is a swirling crosswind, and the trees seem to crowd in uncomfortably. The helicopter must rise vertically until it’s high enough to clear the tops of the trees. It then swings out over Echo Bay. I look down, trying to see our little boat among all the larger yachts, but I can’t spot it. Soon we’re rushing south, being helped along by a 30 to 40 knot tailwind. When we reach Johnstone Strait the helicopter shakes violently, due to the strength of the wind there. Down below, the waters of Johnstone Strait have been whipped to a froth. Even from our flight altitude, I can clearly see how enormous the waves must be. Few boats could avoid capsizing in such conditions. As we fly over Vancouver Island the pilot is talking with the Campbell River Airport. I learn that we won’t be able to land directly at the hospital; something about the heliport there being closed due to construction. We’ll land at the airport and then transfer to a waiting ambulance for the 10 minute drive to the hospital. More time lost. The pilot lies about our estimated time of arrival, saying we’ll be there sooner by 10 minutes. This way, she says, there’ll be no chance that we have to wait for the ambulance to arrive after we’re on the ground. That’s great by me; let the ambulance wait for us.
We land after a flight of about 40 minutes and are quickly transferred to the ambulance. I ride in the front passenger seat for the ride to the hospital. Hospital personnel begin checking on Sandy’s condition while I took care of hospital admissions procedures. Sandy went in for x-rays and CAT scan, and then we were taken to a patient room to wait for the doctor. By this time, she was regaining her speech, and could maintain a conversation, slower than usual, and she tripped up on every 10th word or so, but she was talking, and noticably improving. Then the doctor came in, looking very serious. He said he was sorry, but he had some very heavy information to share. He said that he’d reviewed her CAT scans with a neurologist, and they agree that she has a clot in the brain which has done some damage, and that she has a completely clogged left carotid artery. Despite her improvement, she could experience another stroke at any time and, therefore she needed to receive complete bed rest, with her head lying down, for at least the next 48 hours. Then he said he’d leave us alone so we could absorb this news.
We talked, but the whole scene seemed too unreal. Too much, too fast. After a while, Sandy was moved up to a room on 3rd floor. There were 5 other patients in the room, on beds separated by curtains on overhead tracks. I spent the night in a chair, next to her bed. A nurse brought me a sandwich around midnight, my first meal since noon. First light at 4am took forever to arrive.