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Cowichan named Vancouver Island’s most dangerous river

So why won’t BC Coroners Service recommend improved safety for inner tubers?

The BC Coroners Service has named the Cowichan the most dangerous river on Vancouver Island.

The Cowichan recorded six drownings during the period 2012 to 2022 — tied with the much bigger Skeena River in northwest BC for fifth place overall in the province.

Yet a freedom-of-information request by reveals that the coroner’s report into the latest death made zero recommendations for making conditions safer.

The report by coroner Alberto de Asevedo Siqueira found that a 55-year-old man died inner tubing on the Cowichan River on Aug. 29, 2022, at Marie Canyon.

The report concluded that the man’s inner tube overturned in the fast-flowing canyon. He was found unresponsive by friends at the end of rapids at about 6:15 p.m. Efforts to revive the man through CPR proved unsuccessful. His name was not released.

“A post-mortem examination confirmed cause of death to be blunt force spinal fractures sustained while rafting. Toxicology testing found nothing of relevance to this incident.

“I classify this death as accidental and make no recommendations.” asked Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe why no recommendations were made to improve safety for inner tubers on the river, but she did not respond.

Marie Canyon is known to have dangerous rapids and claimed the life of Lesley Bonnar, a 50-year-old nurse tubing on the river just five years earlier, on July 8, 2017.

Bonnar failed to exit the river at a pool located just above the rapids, something that continues to baffle her daughter.


“I had driven my mom to the river that day and while we were travelling she stated that there was no way she was going to go down Marie Canyon,” Stephanie Bonnar told “My mom wasn’t one to submit to peer pressure or take unnecessary risks.”

Stephanie Bonnar wonders if her mom missed a sign near the riverbank warning tubers to get out or didn’t fully appreciate how quickly the danger would emerge. recently visited the deep pool where tubers are supposed to get out of the river. Not all do. Some continue to ride the current at the bottom of the pool and get out in a smaller area shortly before the rapids where the walk to the parking lot across rocks is shorter.

But getting out at that point is more challenging. Bonnar said her mom may have hit her head on rocks trying to exit there. “It was probably just before the rapids really take off. From what I understand, she got scared and jumped out of the tube to try to swim.”

Bonnar would like to see improved signage and information for tubers unfamiliar with hazards on the river. The short stretch of commercial tubing at the top of the river in Lake Cowichan is a safer bet, yet some visitors may not make the distinction.

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“I want to raise awareness. I want people to go have fun, of course, but we also have to take it seriously."

Aaron Frisby, owner of the Tube Shack in Lake Cowichan, said his staff patrol the upper river daily in search of hazards. Guests float about 2.5 kilometres to Little Beach, where they board a shuttle back to town. Tubers have the option of taking life jackets and half paddles.

“River safety is pretty good at the top of the river,” he said, noting he does not recommend people inner tube further downriver.

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.

“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).”

Tourism Cowichan referred questions to 4VI, but no one was immediately available to comment.

The Cowichan was the only Vancouver Island river to make BC’s top-10 list in terms of drowning deaths.

The Fraser River took top spot with 53, followed by: Thompson River, nine; Columbia River, eight; and Similkameen River, seven.

Rounding out the top 10, after the Cowichan and Skeena rivers, were: Gold Creek Falls (near Maple Ridge); Kettle River/Cascade Falls, and Kootenay River, all five; and Slocan River, four.

The dangers of Lynn Creek Canyon in North Vancouver may have received more publicity than any other river or creek in terms of drowning risk, yet that location did not make the top 10. There has been one fatality in Lynn Canyon in the last five years.

The coroners service reports that BC fatal drownings are most common in the summer months, peaking in July, and that most involve males.

Individuals aged 19 to 29 accounted for 21 percent of the deaths, followed by 50-to-59-year-olds at 17 percent.

Read more:

This article is the first in a series on drowning risks in the Cowichan River.

(Video: Marie Canyon rapids. Photos: Take-out pool above the rapids; Stephanie Bonnar).

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— Larry Pynn, August 13, 2023


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