What began as an afternoon canoe trip down the scenic Sproat River on a sunny, mild autumn day turned into an hours long ordeal for a Port Alberni couple, Wednesday (Sept. 26).
The husband and wife were trying to reach a beach when something happened and they ended up in the water.
“They got swept down the first set of rapids and capsized their canoe,” Alberni Valley Rescue Squad search manager Dave Poulsen said.
“The male of the party was swept downriver and was able to get out. The female became entrapped just between two sets of rapids, just above a very large set with several very dangerous holes in the river.”
The water was too deep and the current too strong for the woman to swim to shore: she was sitting on a rock just above three rapids.
Steve Penney from Mainroad Contracting was inspecting the Sproat River Bridge and had gotten out of his truck when he heard someone screaming. “She was screaming ‘my husband, my husband!’,” Penney said. “I found him (several hundred) metres down the river, wandering around, no shoes or anything.”
The man had travelled nearly 200 metres downriver and had gone over the fish ladder before reaching shore.
Rob LeBlond of Bowser had been looking for a good fishing spot downstream and decided to check out the rest of the river via a service road. “I came along the service road and ended up here. I figured I would get out and look at the condition of the river,” he said.
“I didn’t see (the woman) but I could hear someone yelling.” At first he thought it was kids on the bridge above or in the vicinity.
“I didn’t connect that there was somebody down on the river. They were yelling for assistance.”
When he spotted the woman through brush on the river’s edge, he called 911 while Penney searched downriver for her husband.
LeBlond said he sat in view of the woman until the RCMP showed up, around 1:20 p.m. He said the couple was relatively new to the Alberni Valley, having moved here from Alberta a few months ago.
Port Alberni RCMP Cpl. Patrick Jenkins said the rescue was a coordination between police, BC Ambulance, Alberni Valley Rescue Squad and the Port Alberni Fire Department. Two conservation officers also helped at the scene, and 19 search and rescue volunteers from Port Alberni, Arrowsmith and the Comox Valley were involved.
Rescuers were able to throw blankets and heat packs to the woman. They threw over a heavy-duty lifejacket to replace the one she had been wearing, as well as a helmet to prepare her for rescue.
The Alberni rescue squad’s swift water team members volunteers weren’t available to help so other volunteers were called in from Parksville (Arrowsmith Search and Rescue) and Comox Valley Ground Search and Rescue.
Some of the volunteers were brought in via helicopter, which required Highway 4 to be closed at the Sproat River bridge for five minutes so the aircraft could land on the highway.
“Half of them flew in by helicopter and the other half came in via ground travel,” Poulsen said.
They assessed the scene again to determine how to extricate the canoeist. She couldn’t be airlifted via helicopter because she was right below power lines and the area is surrounded by tall trees, he said.
“We floated a kayak down to the patient, loaded her into the kayak and drifted her back across the river.”
Once the kayak was in the water, the rescue happened quickly, and the woman was plucked from the water just before 4 p.m. Her husband had remained onshore throughout the rescue despite suffering some minor injuries.
Both individuals walked to the ambulance waiting on the highway above and were taken to hospital for medical treatment.