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search and rescue

Elaine Campbell is airlifted to hospital after spending six days alone on a remote Haida Gwaii beach.Ken Beatty

From the desolate shoreline, a flash of red cut through the night. It was not a common sight on the wild west coast of Haida Gwaii, where there are no roads, no people.

When the crew of the fish boat went in closer to investigate what appeared to be an emergency flare, they heard a woman screaming on the beach.

A few hours later, Elaine Campbell was being loaded into a Coast Guard rescue boat, the miraculous survivor of six harrowing days alone in the wilderness, her companion washed away in a boating mishap that forced her to swim through frigid waters to shore.

"She was mentally traumatized, emotionally upset," said Civa Gauthier, one of the four-member Coast Guard contingent that rescued her. "She had been on a very remote beach by herself for several nights and days, and she had watched a loved one disappear."

Ms. Campbell, 62, survived on a single orange, drinking water from puddles and a nearby creek, and munching seaweed.

She is recovering from her ordeal in Haida Gwaii's small hospital in Queen Charlotte City, where she is in weakened but good condition, with no serious injuries or medical issues.

The RCMP are now searching for her 66-year-old companion, Fred Wydenes, who drifted from view shortly after the skiff overturned. The couple are from Courtenay on Vancouver Island.

When the Coast Guard crew drew near shore early Sunday morning, they saw the marooned woman sitting by a fire. "She was physically weak, but she was able to walk herself down the beach" to meet them, Ms. Gauthier said.

She had kept track of the days by marking a log with blackened wood from her fire.

Those who know the isolated area well say it's a sheer stroke of luck that Ms. Campbell's plight was discovered by the chance sighting of her flare in a cove where fish boats rarely stray.

"This is probably the most remote spot in B.C.," said Ken Beatty, general manager of The Outpost fishing lodge, just south of where the woman was found, on the west coast of Graham Island, largest of the multi-island chain that comprises Haida Gwaii. "There are not a lot of people here. The chances of her being seen were very slim. Everyone's pretty surprised she made it."

The woman was airlifted to hospital from his lodge's heli-pad. "She was not in good shape. She's not the youngest person. It was quite an ordeal for her to survive," Mr. Beatty said.

"You've got to hand it to her. She walked out of the ocean, soaking wet. And it's cold up here. The weather has been pretty miserable the last four or five days, plus, psychologically, she must have been terrified, not knowing what was going to happen to her."

Ms. Campbell and Mr. Wydenes had been off the coast of Haida Gwaii in their troller, waiting for Thursday's salmon opening. They decided to do some beachcombing and took their small skiff into Tian Bay to look around.

On the way in, however, the boat overturned. Ms. Campbell was wearing a life jacket. Mr. Wydenes was not.

"I guess there were some rocks, and waves hit and flipped the boat," said Joan Wydenes, ex-wife of the missing man, who said her daughter had been talking to Ms. Campbell about the incident.

"My ex-husband told [her]to hang on to the propeller, and she hung on to that. She thought he was hanging on, too, but when she looked, she saw him sink under the water, so I don't know what happened. It could have been anything."

When Mr. Wydenes disappeared, Ms. Campbell swam through the cold, choppy waters to land.

The Coast Guard was called in early Sunday morning, after the fish boat crew reported seeing a flare about 2:15 a.m.

The service quickly dispatched its lifeboat, the Cape Mudge, from Sandspit, about 100 kilometres south of where Ms. Campbell was stranded.

"Once we arrived on the scene, we talked to the people from the fishing boat, and they said they heard her screaming on the beach. It was hard to make out what she was saying, something about how she lost her friend," Ms. Gauthier said.

The crew - Bruce Campbell, Blake Sprague and Murray Kennedy, along with Ms. Gauthier - sent in their own small boat to pick up Ms. Campbell.

Before taking her to hospital, they stopped off at the couple's vessel moored three kilometres away, where Ms. Campbell was able to gather some belongings and her two, lonely cats.

"She was very grateful for her rescue," Mr. Beatty reported. "She was thanking everyone for saving her, and also her two cats."

Ms. Campbell has so far declined to talk to the media about her terrifying experience.