JOE SPEARS's picture
Swift water BC rescues raise key questions
Posted on Oct 14, 2020

In the past two weeks, we have had two questionable incidents on the Capilano River in British Columbia.

On October 1, the sudden gate release from the Cleveland Dam on the Capilano River killed one fisherman and another is still listed as missing. Although vaguely described as a "human error" and an "accident" during maintenance, one has to wonder if negligence was a factor in the sudden release of a wall of water that swept six people away. No doubt an RCMP investigation is underway. 

Then, on October 10, residents in the area saw another technical rescue by North Vancouver Fire Rescue teams of seven fly fishermen who had become trapped on a sandbar by rapidly rising waters of the Capilano River. The fishermen had earlier been approached by rescue crews at a less dangerous stage, but they declined to leave – until they became stranded.

The Capilano River is a dangerous, fast-flowing river with sudden fluctuations. It's within the jurisdiction of Metro Vancouver, and the river itself is within the boundaries of the popular Capilano River Park, West Vancouver and North Vancouver. Homes populate both sides of the river. 

It is time for frank discussions about the risks involved with activities around such a powerful river in a populated area. This is much preferred to another coroner's inquest. 

We are putting our highly trained first responders at risk in undertaking swift water recovery rescues. These professionals make it look easy, but it's highly technical and difficult work, especially in cold, fast-moving water. North Shore Fire Rescue crews are some of the best in the world, ironically some of these firefighters are pretty fair anglers and fly fishermen themselves, but presumably follow safety precautions.

There needs to be a discussion on how to resolve the safety issues of this and similar recreational activities around such a natural tempest. One needless death is too many, and this issue is easy to resolve. We should look at what Parks Canada does and review what other municipalities do in regard to their rivers, especially in controlling fishing and access.

There are many models and examples from other jurisdictions – why aren't we studying them? There are overlapping federal, provincial, municipal and First Nations jurisdictions, but this should not prevent immediate action.

The public's right to fish must be exercised in with safety fin mind unless, of course, we bring in mandatory rescue insurance so that these rescues will be paid by the people being rescued. Another is having a permit system with a mandatory safety briefing and mandatory safety gear. As part of the healing process, this needs to happen immediately. Metro can lead and fund this. It's not rocket science. The Squamish Nation Guardians, who are on the river daily, would be a good option to manage this program. 

There needs to be a mandatory made-in-Canada solution. It is a matter of education. Mentoring by Squamish Nation Guardians should be mandatory. North Vancouver District Fire Rescue had no authority to force the anglers to leave, and had to come back and risk their lives because of such reckless behaviour. Firefighters are not babysitters. Unjustifiably foolhardy action should not be acceptable. The rescued anglers should be billed for their rescues and named in public. These fees can help fund the program. 

I am thinking former Mayor and paramedic extraordinaire, Darrell Mussatto, should lead this initiative with co-chair SAR elder and legend Gerry Brewer. I'd be pleased to assist, as would others in the business. Another awesome person to lead this discussion is the former North Vancouver RCMP OIC Superintendent (now retired) Chris Kennedy, a SAR elder who knows the issues and players well. 

We dodged another bullet on the Capilano River. Thank you, North Vancouver Fire Rescue.

A retired maritime barrister​, Joe Spears is an avid fly fisherman who was taught at a young age how to safely fly fish in remote and dangerous waters of the Canadian wilderness.