Have you ever had a medical emergency while alone at the lake?

Walking through a potentially life-threatening injury in the forest. Photo by Maridav/

In episode 5 of the Cottage Life Podcast Season 3, we’ll listen to an essay about dealing with a medical emergency when you are alone at the lake, which first appeared in our June 1998 issue. Listen here or visit for access to all of the episodes.

It was 1:30 in the morning of August 13 and I was alone and awake at the cottage. A thunderstorm was tailing off, soft lighting glimmering on the lake, the wind fading, rain easing.

I was alone, awake, and ill. My lower abdomen was sore, a dull pain deep inside. I hoped it was something I had eaten and I poured a glass of Bromo Seltzer and tried to sleep. But an hour later I was fully awake again, damp with sweat, the pain sharper, reminding me of my burst appendix two decades ago.

I paced the cottage and looked at the phone. Who would I call, alone on an island in the dying storm? Who would come and get me? What should I do? 

I dressed. Slowly. Bending over was beyond me. And I couldn’t even think of tying my shoes. The night air was soft and fair when I stepped outside to go to the bathroom. With scant success. I wondered if my colon had tied itself in a knot. 

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I had to get off the island. I put on a poncho and headed over the little hill towards the boathouse, walking slowly, cradling my pain. I started my boat, backed carefully into the narrow dark channel—this was no time to hit a rock—and headed into the main channel of the lake, aiming for my car at the marina. 

The pain was bad; each small wave hurt. Alone in the dark in the boat, I now knew this was serious. I eased into the marina dock, tied the boat loosely and, doubled over, protecting my pain, walked to the car. Briefly I thought of asking for help, but there were no lights. Besides, cottagers solve their own problems.

I drove to the nearest hospital 50 km away in Peterborough, foot to the floor except for the periods of pain when I had to slow to a crawl. Passing the few cars of morning, blowing through the stops. I followed those blue-and-white hospital signs, parked at Emergency, and crept in. They put me on a gurney, asked me questions, took my blood pressure, touched my stomach, and drew off a litre of fluid. The relief was wonderful, the prognosis of a prostate operation less so. I thanked them effusively and returned to my car, relieved, although not completely at ease. Shaken but alive, driving into the soft light of morning.

I’ve had several life-threatening emergencies before but, like most cottagers, it never occurred to me one would strike while I was alone on an island in the dark. Nor, I supposed, does it occur to most of us what can happen far from telephones or friends down that long and torturous cottage road. Yet I should know better.

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One June at my former cottage in Haliburton, alone in the gathering dusk, I had been relocating an interior wall. I dropped off a stepladder and drove my left foot onto a pair of four-inch nails protruding from the floor. I pulled free, painfully, and limped into the living room, trailing blood. I drew the boot off, got a basin of warm water with a little salt, and soaked my foot. It hurt. I phoned the Haliburton Hospital and they told me to come in. The doctor looked at my foot, the nurse put a bandage on it and gave me a tetanus shot, and they turned me loose.

That twilight drive back to the cottage was similar to the early morning drive back from Peterborough: I was elated that I had my pain relieved and in shock. The car wandered on the road.

And now as I headed back to my boat at the marina I thought of my ancient grandmother at the family cottage in Bala. She was often struck by heart pains and we children would be sent into town on foot to ask for the doctor or to get a supply of her pills. We had several alarms a summer, but illness never kept my grandmother from the Muskoka she loved. 

Nor will it keep me, nor, I am sure, most cottagers from the way of life we cherish. 

I parked at the marina, climbed into my boat in the rain-fresh sunlight, and drove into the tranquility of morning. And into the uncertainty of life.

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