Near-death experience on Cowichan River a warning to inner tubers
The song, Jaws of Old Marie, describes the experience of tumbling through rapids
The year: 1989.
The location: the Cowichan River just before the deadly Marie Canyon rapids.
“It was dangerous,” recalls Maple Bay singer-songwriter Beverley McKeen. “We could have died. All we had to do was hit our heads on one of those rocks.”
The dangers of the Cowichan River have been known for decades, yet little has been done to improve safety.
The BC Coroners Service last month named the Cowichan the most dangerous river on Vancouver Island, with six drowning deaths from 2012 to 2022.
One of those deaths involved a volunteer with the Sahtlam fire department tubing in the lower river in 2018.
The Cowichan ranked fifth overall in BC against much larger rivers, based on the six deaths.
But the president of Cowichan Search and Rescue says that’s not the whole story.
Jamie Tudway-Cains says the tally doesn’t account for individuals who went missing but were never found.
“The numbers are bound to be higher than that,” he said.
And no one keeps track of individuals who made it through Marie Canyon — with injuries.
“There’s also a lot of people who don’t end up dead but severely injured and in the hospital. We’ve taken enough of them out.”
McKeen and a male friend were on a two-person inflatable dinghy headed downriver from Skutz Falls on a sunny day in early summer when the river was flowing fairly high.
“He was born and raised here, so I followed his lead,” she recalls in an interview.
As they approached Marie Canyon, McKeen heard the unsettling sound of rapids just ahead.
“‘What’s that noise?’ Then we came around the bend and I could see the drop-off and said, ‘Holy crap!’
“I jumped out of the boat and he went over the edge with it.
"My fingernails were hanging on to this slippery rock. I let go and covered up my head and I went through it.
“I got sucked into the vortex.
“I opened my eyes twice and it was just all big champagne bubbles. Bang, bang, bang…and I landed in a pool and popped out, spat out.
“I took a breath. Okay, I’m alive.”
McKeen, a former lifeguard, said her friend also made it through the falls with the dinghy wrapped around his head.
“Both of us were bleeding, cut up and totalled freaked out.
“I wouldn’t go tubing for years after that. No way.”
The incident prompted her to write the song, Jaws of Old Marie, which she performed during this year’s 39 Days of July music festival in Duncan. The friend she went down the river with that day was sitting in the audience.
The lyrics include: “A little lunch on a secluded beach, everything necessary well within reach, we put back in but when we rounded the curve, the roar I heard made me lose my nerve, there they were, it was the Jaws of Old Marie.”
After the incident, McKeen contacted North Cowichan, Cowichan Valley Regional District, Duncan, and RCMP seeking a warning sign above Marie Canyon.
She’s unaware of authorities taking any action at the time in response to her concerns.
Today there are two BC Parks signs warning tubers to get out of the water in a pool just above Marie Canyon.
But the deaths continue.
A 55-year-old man died inner tubing on Aug. 29, 2022, at Marie Canyon. The coroner’s report determined the cause of death to be blunt force spinal fractures. The report made no recommendations for improving river safety, and Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe has refused to say why.
Just five years earlier, in 2017, a 50-year-old woman tubing the river died after plunging down Marie Canyon rapids.
With the Cowichan River being marketed as a tubing destination, more needs to be done to improve safety, McKeen said. “We need all sorts of warnings. Maybe people are drinking too much or not paying attention.”
Tourism Cowichan promotes tubing on the Cowichan River through its printed visitors guide, but gives no information in the guide on where people can tube safely.
It reads: “A popular local pastime is ‘tubing,’ which involves reclining in large inflated inner tubes and gently going with the flow downstream. For this, you might consider the famous Cowichan River (spring and summer only).”
Says McKeen: “You create a destination for tourists, and for locals, and you want them to be safe because you can’t know what you can’t see from the road.”
sixmountains.ca conducted an archival search for historic newspaper articles on the Cowichan River, and found several references to drownings.
An article in The Citizen dated Sept. 25, 1988, carried the headline, ‘White water canyon is site of drownings.’
In the article, an individual asked the Cowichan Valley Regional District to investigate ways of making Marie Canyon safer for river travellers after the near drowning of two persons on inner tubes. The article recalled a tragedy seven years earlier in which a man and his 22-year-old son drowned at the same area.
Another article, on Aug., 15, 1990, described how a 27-year-old man went missing while rafting near Marie Canyon. His body was discovered after an overnight search. The article noted the need for better signage on the river. One tourism operator said: “It’s more dangerous than it looks. We’ve got problems with people bringing kids who are too young, and others getting silly with booze.”
An article dated Aug. 2, 1992, said a coroner recommended warning signs be placed at Skutz Falls and Marie Canyon to signal the dangers ahead. A man died the previous winter while travelling the river in a small boat. The deceased man lacked experience in the area and was wearing hip waders.
Marie Canyon is named after Marie Adelaide, the wife of Canada’s Governor General from 1926 to 1931.
According to the BC Geographical Names website, naming of the rapids commemorated Adelaide’s canoe trip on the Cowichan River in 1930.
This article is the second in a series on drowning risks in the Cowichan River.
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(Photos: Beverley McKeen, Marie Canyon; take-out just above canyon).
— Larry Pynn, August 17, 2023