Man suffers serious chest injury 8 hours into N.W.T. wilderness canoe trip

An accident and subsequent medical emergency ended a father and son's canoe trip near Yellowknife last weekend almost as soon as it began.

Dan Adam, 61, and son used SPOT device to call for help

Dan Adam (right) and his son Mike before taking off for their canoe trip last Sunday. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

An accident and subsequent medical emergency ended a father and son's canoe trip near Yellowknife last weekend almost as soon as it began.

At first, Dan Adam's biggest concern was the ring finger on his right hand — it was bleeding a lot.

On the first day of a canoe trip with his son, hours after being dropped off by float plane in the N.W.T. wilderness, he had fallen hard on his chest while guiding the canoe along the shore of an intense set of rapids. 

"The rope got tangled around my finger and it ended up tightening and ripping off the tip of the finger," he said.

Adam's son Mike wrapped his father's finger as best he could, then used their SPOT device to call for help. A plane picked them up about an hour and a half later.

It turns out Adam's finger was the least of his concerns.

One days after being discharged from Stanton Territorial Hospital's emergency room for his injured finger, he was finding he could say only three or four words before needing to stop and take a breath.  

Dan Adam, 61, came to Yellowknife from London, Ont., for a four-night canoe trip with his son Mike. Neither of them expected the trip to end eight hours after it started. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

"It was around about 11 p.m. when we finally decided, there's got to be something more to this now," he said.

He was right.

New X-rays showed three cracked ribs, which had scraped part of Adam's right lung, causing internal bleeding.

This can be perilous if the bleeding continues and there's no room for the lung to expand, making it nearly impossible to breathe. Yellowknife doctors inserted a tube in Adam's chest and between last Sunday and Tuesday, drained more than a litre of blood from his chest cavity.

Well prepared

Adam, who lives in London, Ont., and his son Mike, who lives in Yellowknife, had been preparing for their canoe trip for months; a float plane dropped them off at Fishing Lake, about 80 kilometres north of Yellowknife, and they had mapped a four- to five-day route that would bring them out at the Yellowknife River, where it meets Great Slave Lake.

They packed a first aid kit, which supplied the gauze to wrap Adam's finger; PFDs, which helped lessen the blow when Adam fell; a SPOT device, which provided the co-ordinates for Air Tindi to pick them up during the emergency; as well as plenty of food and a bear barrel.

But Adam and Mike aren't sure how they could have prepared for an accident like this.

"I'm cautious enough in most situations," said Adam. "I'm not a risk taker per se; I don't consider this a risk taking thing… I had trust in our abilities in what we could do."

Rescues 'pretty regular'

Al Martin, president of Air Tindi, says the company handles search-and-rescue-type pickups out in the bush "on a pretty regular basis." 

This is what Dan Adam called his 'suitcase.' It was connected to his chest tube, which drained more than a litre of blood that was trapped between his chest muscles and his right lung. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

He says even if the people don't need medical attention at the time but do need to get back to town, Air Tindi will try to fly out and pick the people up.

"We know where any of our aircrafts are at any one time," Martin said. "So in that case, we didn't have a medic on that aircraft obviously, but we were able to get there and recover [them] very quickly."

Martin is also co-president of ACCESS — Aeromedical Critical Care Emergency Services Specialists — a partnership between Air Tindi and Advanced Medical Solutions that provides the pilots and paramedics for emergency medevacs in the N.W.T.

How it works

If someone in the N.W.T. is in the bush and has a medical emergency, they should get in touch with RCMP or any other emergency official in Yellowknife. That official will then call Med-Response, where a nurse at Stanton Territorial Hospital triages medical support and air ambulance services and allocates necessary resources, like a plane and paramedics. 

Martin says even if someone called Air Tindi directly, its dispatchers would forward the call. 

"To be honest, in an emergency we would take a call in any direction," Martin said. "We would then contact Med-Response immediately... and it's up to Med-Response to assign the priorities." 

Dan and Mike Adam were dropped off by plane at Fishing Lake around 8 a.m. last Sunday. They pushed their SPOT device at 6:50 p.m. and Air Tindi picked them up about 1.5 hours later. (Google)

If I did it again...

Adam said there are a few things he and his son could have done differently on their trip to potentially mitigate Adam's fall.

He says they would have:

  • Taken gear out of the canoe before guiding it down rapids
  • Not forgotten sunglasses and hat
  • Worn gloves, which could have protected Adam's finger
  • Bought a different SPOT device with two-way communication

"The SPOT unit was good, it did its job," Adam said. "But we didn't know if [our message] reached anybody or not.

"It would have been nice to have some sort of two-way communication. I wouldn't say I necessarily need a satellite phone, but another way of communicating probably would have been a nice way of having more... security for our sake."