Cowichan Search and Rescue offers ideas to help save lives on Cowichan River
The president of Cowichan Search and Rescue is making sweeping suggestions for reducing the risk of drowning on the Cowichan River.
The recommendations of Jamie Tudway-Cains range from better signage on the Cowichan to development of a website or app offering safety advice and the latest information on river conditions.
But who is going to make it happen? The river flows through several jurisdictions such as Cowichan Valley Regional District, BC Parks, and First Nations.
“I think there’s lots of people willing to help,” Tudway-Cains told sixmountains.ca. “But nobody wants to take the liability, I guess. Maybe that’s what it is.”
The BC Coroners Service in July named the Cowichan Vancouver Island’s most dangerous river based on six drowning deaths from 2012 to 2022.
But a coroner’s report on the latest fatality — a 55-year-old man inner tubing on Aug. 29, 2022, at Marie Canyon rapids — made no recommendations on ways to improve safety.
Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe refuses to say why.
A 50-year-old woman also died tubing at the same location five years earlier, on July 8, 2017.
And no one keeps track of individuals injured or hospitalized as a result of tubing accidents.
Tudway-Cains said search-and-rescue members conduct regular patrols on the river and their findings could be included on an app. “We’d be more than willing to team up and work on that with whoever,” he said.
River flows could also be included on an app. The Crofton pulp-and-paper mill controls a dam that regulates water flows from Cowichan Lake into the river and already publishes updates on water levels, including charts.
Tudway-Cains said another idea is for users of the Cowichan, including tubers, kayakers and drift fishers, to post river conditions as they experience them.
Improved signage would also help.
“There’s nowhere near enough signage,” he said. “And the signage that’s there, it’s not appropriate. It’s not good enough.”
The three main areas where people get into trouble on the Cowichan River are Skutz Falls, Horseshoe Bend (just downstream from Skutz Falls), and Marie Canyon, he said.
A BC Parks sign at Skutz Falls parking lot reads: “Caution. Sweepers, log jams and rapids will be encountered along the Cowichan River. Use extreme care.”
But tubers don’t start there, due to the rapids. They put in a short distance downstream where the water pools up beneath a bridge. There are no warning signs at that location and no references to Horseshoe Bend rapids just downstream.
BC Parks has two seasonal signs above Marie Canyon on the left side of the river warning tubers to get out in a pool just above the rapids. Most tubers end their float here.
Tudway-Cains said it’s possible that tubers distracted, drinking, or looking to the right side of the river might miss the signs. He suggested attaching a sign to a line strung across the river so that tubers cannot miss it.
“Make it obvious,” he said. “And be blunt. Say, ‘look, this is your last chance. Get out now. We’re not suggesting you get out, we’re telling you to get out now.’”
At Lynn Creek canyon in North Vancouver, officials are getting creative to drive home their safety message.
One sign reads: “I’m ok drowning today. Said no one ever.”
Another: “Adrenaline will not revive you. Don’t cliff jump.”
Fact is, tubers on the Cowichan can get into trouble pretty much anywhere along the river, including when travelling when flows are too high, when water temperatures are too cold or setting out too late in the day.
Most tubers patronize the commercial tubing operation at Lake Cowichan, floating about 2.5 kilometres downstream to Little Beach where a shuttle returns them to town.
But even here one can get into trouble.
Tudway-Cains said search-and-rescue personnel recently had two calls related to tubers, aged 14 and 17 years, who missed Little Beach and continued downstream — luckily, not as far as Skutz Falls.
“If you’re not paying attention.…” he said. “And they were with their families.”
As for Horseshoe Bend rapids, Tudway-Cains suggests tubers get out and walk around.
“I was young once, too. But I’ve seen way too much stuff now. Why take the chance? It’s not worth it.”
Other steps tubers can take to improve safety:
— Wear a life jacket, something few currently do.
— Get out and scout blind sections of the river if you are unsure of what awaits downstream. The river changes and wood can accumulate where previously it had not.
— Carry a kayak paddle to give you better maneuverability and to help protect against hitting rocks.
— Know that alcohol increases your risk on the river.
“Don’t get drunk and go down the river,” Tudway-Cains says. “Know what you’re getting in to.”
This article is the third in a series on drowning risks in the Cowichan River.
(Cowichan Search and Rescue photo of training on the Cowichan River. sixmountains.ca photos: BC Parks sign above Marie Canyon; Horseshoe Bend rapids).
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— Larry Pynn, August 23, 2023