Tragedy at Otter Falls

Law enforcement is no stranger to tragedy and working in a provincial park environment brings the focus of accidental death to the forefront. The recreational use of lakes, rivers and highways, back country roads and winter snowmobile trails increases the possibility of accidents for weekend enthusiasts who choose to stray beyond their levels of expertise and their boundaries of safe practice in pursuit of an enjoyable pastime. Such was the case in the following story; family names have been changed to protect their privacy.

 In August 1978 I was stationed at Whitemouth Manitoba, a small farming community 100 kilometers east of Winnipeg and the gateway to the western boundary of the Whiteshell Provincial Park. The “Whiteshell” encompasses just under 3000 square kilometers of protected wilderness area anchored in the heart of the Canadian shield and boreal forest; the ancestral home of the Anishinaabe Nation.

 Whitemouth was my first RCMP posting and on my arrival in 1973, I and two other detachment Members were kept busy with a variety of policing duties. During the summer months, the seasonal population increased dramatically and police service delivery was challenged. In 1977, a new section was added to the detachment that was to focus on water and boating safety. The area of responsibility included 6 detachment areas covering over 21,000 square kilometers of terrain in the Southeast region of the province. I was named to that position.

 Friday August the 4th was a beautiful day and the first day of the August long weekend. The weather for the following three days was forecast to be sunny and hot, two predicators of a busy park. Campground reservations were full and park’s personnel were opening up overflow areas, anticipating a high tourist demand. I had planned my shift that day to patrol the Winnipeg River by boat until dark and then fill in where required to assist the land based shift schedule. That summer, I had a student assigned to me; Rob and I had just hooked up the detachment boat to the company Suburban van and were planning to be on the river within the hour. Those plans quickly changed as a result of a radio call from the RCMP Winnipeg Detachment emergency line.

 My car radio sounded with a familiar call from the dispatcher, “Whitemouth Detachment, XJL201 Winnipeg. Whitemouth Detachment?”

 I picked up the radio microphone and responded, “XJL201 Winnipeg, this is Whitemouth car 681.”

 “We just received a call of a possible drowning at Otter Falls. Are you ready to copy?”

 “Yes, go ahead.”

 I took the details of the call and signed off the radio.

 Rob sat beside me in the passenger seat as I explained the location and situation to him. Otter Falls was a popular campground area just inside the western border of the park and just up-river from the Seven Sisters Hydro Generating Station. Built in 1929, construction of the station flooded the up-river basin of the Winnipeg River, covering a series of seven hazardous white-water rapids. Although now under 9 meters of water, the underwater topography remained, creating swirling surface turbulence and unpredictable currents.

 The suspected victim, Raymond Arthur Dubois, had arrived at Otter Falls campground earlier that morning with his extended family. The weekend was planned to be a reunion of sorts. Four camper trailers and several tents were set up to house the Dubois clan through the weekend’s activities. Completing his camp setup, Ray and his brother John had launched a small fishing boat onto the river. Their boat had overturned. John had made it to safety, Ray was missing and presumed drowned. The family was desperate for our assistance.

 Upon our arrival at the campground several family members including the accident survivor John, met us. While John had changed into dry clothes, he was wrapped in a blanket; he appeared to be suffering more from shock than from the cold waters of the Winnipeg River. Family members had tried to persuade John to go to the hospital, but he had refused. He wanted to contribute, to try and atone for his inability to reverse the outcome of the event that had taken his brother’s life. He was fraught with remorse at his loss, or perhaps tormented by guilt that he was spared the same fate.

 We sat at a picnic table as I took his statement.

 John was 63 years of age; his brother Ray was 66. This was a weekend planned to celebrate, if not their retirement, at least their gradual withdrawal from the family grain business they had both worked at since their early teens.

 “This was our first family weekend together in a long time. We got the kids and the grandkids here, a few girlfriends. Ray and I set up our camps and wanted to get some fishing in before dinner, maybe even bring some pickerel back for the table. It was my boat, a 14-foot aluminum Lund with a 20 horsepower Evenrude. Ray was driving from the back of the boat. We crossed the river without any problem, its only 200 meters wide where it passes the campground. There was a stromg current in the main channel so we wanted to find some quiet water. We found a small area on the other side. We decided to anchor the boat. The anchor was on the floor in the back and Ray pulled it out. He tied off about 60 feet of rope to the corner of the boat and tossed the anchor over the side. We figured there was about 25 feet of water where we wanted to fish. The boat drifted and we waited for the anchor to catch. I noticed that the boat was drifting back into the river current, but figured once the anchor caught, the boat would swing back into quiet water again.”

 John stopped his narration to allow me to catch up with my writing. He continued to show outward signs of distress; his wife stood beside him offering support and adjusted the blanket around his shoulders to keep him warm. He continued,

 “Well the anchor caught and the rope went tight. The current was stronger than we thought. We didn’t think about that. It was dragging us down. The corner of the boat dipped to the water and Ray bent over to try and release the rope. It was too tight; his leaning made it worse. The corner of the boat went under and water started coming in. I moved to the front and Ray was still trying to untie the rope. Once the water took hold we just went over.”

 Visibly upset, John took a few moments to compose himself. Someone brought him a drink; I think it was a rum or whiskey. He sipped, sighed deeply and then started his narrative again.

 “We came up and caught our breath. We didn’t have lifejackets on; one was floating near us, the other must have got stuck under the boat. It was mostly under water, just the front side was sticking out. We were getting caught in the current and I started swimming for the life jacket. It was in quieter water but it took me awhile to swim to it. I heard Ray calling to me, but I needed to get to the life jacket before I could help him. I got to the jacket and grabbed it. I was pretty tired and cold. I turned around looking for Ray. I couldn’t see him. I yelled for him but he didn’t answer. By now, some other boats had come to help us. I thought maybe he was in a boat. I yelled for him but nobody answered. Then a boat picked me up. We looked around for Ray. He was gone.”

 At this point one of the park rangers, Phil, approached the table to speak to me. Phil advised that they had recovered the boat from the river and had patrolled along the river’s edge in case Ray had made it to shore. I asked Phil to continue the patrols until I completed my initial discussions with the family.

 Turning back to John I could tell he was exhausted, and while I spent some time reassuring him that he did as much as could be done under the conditions, I could tell that the words held no solace for him. Finished, he left the table and walked to his camper with his wife.

 A man that had been standing close by approached me and introduced himself. Ben was Ray’s son, and while clearly uncomfortable at the designation, he advised me that he would be the family spokesman. He wanted to know if we could still keep looking for his Dad. I advised him that at the present time, park personnel were on the water looking for his Dad and would continue to do so until dark. If nothing was found by then, a recovery operation would commence the next day. We shared contact information and I promised to see him again before the end of day.

 After discussing the situation with Phil, he agreed to have the boat taken to their office compound and secured there as evidence. RCMP policy and provincial law required a detailed examination of the vessel. Deficiencies and pecularities would form part of the final investigative report.

 Rob and I launched the police boat and assisted in the recovery effort. At dusk, nothing other than a few articles from the boat, including the second life jacket, were found. Subsequent to our interview and search there was no evidence to suggest the incident was anything other than an accident. After sharing our findings with the family, we departed for the night. For my part, it was difficult to leave the area knowing that to the family, Ray was somewhere close and yet unreachable. As in other drownings I had attended, I expected that family members would be sleepless that night and watchful over the star lit waters at Otter Falls.

 At 8 o’clock the next morning, Rob and I arrived at Otter Falls. The campground had awakened. Some campers were outside cooking breakfast over an open fire, the smell of wood smoke and bacon wafting through the air. Moms with little ones wandered to and from the community showers. One campsite strewn with beer bottles showed no sign of activity. Down near the boat launch, campers were launching boats of various sizes, some outrigged for fishing, others for tubing and water skiing. After informally indicating our interest in launching the police boat, we went to see the family. Ben was waiting for us.

 Our search options were limited. While the depth of water was within the limits for both dragging and SCUBA diving operations, given the strength of the current, dragging with chains and hooks was impractical and diving was too dangerous.

 Earlier that morning I had discussed the recovery operation with Al, my new detachment commander. This incident was unique in that it occurred within view of a full and active public campground that would remain that way for the next three days. As well, I fully expected that the majority of the family would remain on site for the duration of the weekend. The cold hard fact was that, eventually, Ray would float back to the surface and eventually be seen. In reality, I thought it best that I maintain a presence in the area as a show of support to the family and a demonstration of professionalism to the public. Al agreed.

 I shook hands with Ben,

 “How was your night?” I asked.

 “As well as can be expected, Mom had a rough night. John went to see his doctor. I’m still numb.”

 For the next several minutes we shelved the events of the previous day and the difficulties expected in the days ahead and shared information about ourselves. Soon, Ben brought us back to the moment,

 “So what’s the next step?”

 “Well, with the current as strong as it is, it is too dangerous for divers, so that option is out. I think a dragging operation is also impossible, but I plan to try this morning and see.”

 “And if that doesn’t work.”

 “Then we wait. We know that in a drowning, your Dad won’t move far from where he went under. It’s only when he starts floating that the current will then carry him down river. When he comes up depends on the depth and temperature of the water and the contents of his stomach when he drowned. Given our situation, I would guess three days at the earliest. But we plan to remain in the area for the weekend. We will be working with the Parks Branch and doing frequent patrols. As I said, this morning, I’ll try dragging and see.”

 An hour later Rob, Phil and I were in the police boat with the dragging irons ready. Blue and gold in color and with an open cabin protecting both the driver and the passenger seats, the police boat was an 18 foot tri-hull fiberglass hybrid that had been specially built for security duties attached to the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. The craft was extremely stable and remained flat on the water regardless of the movements of the occupants inside. A 200 horsepower Evenrude outboard engine powered it; power enough for me to maintain control in our expected area of operation. I moved the boat into position while Phil readied the irons.

 Dragging irons is a fairly simple tool. The base of our irons was an 8-foot long hollow galvanized steel bar. Along the length of the bar, several short chains had been welded at equal intervals and at the end of each chain, a three-pronged metal hook had been attached. A short rope attached to each end of the galvanized bar was then attached to a longer rope that was used by the operator to tender the bar throughout the operation. Theoretically, the hooks would “catch” the victim’s clothing and allow the body to be hoist to the surface. The technology was primitive; historically, the odds of recovery using irons was low.

 Phil dropped the irons over the stern of the boat and fed out the tender rope.

 “OK, I’ve hit bottom at about 25 feet,” he said. “I’m going to let out another 25 feet of rope and then we can drift with the current and drag the bottom.”

 I put the engine into neutral and let the boat pull itself into the current. Things went smoothly for only a short distance before the irons caught a rock on the bottom and stuck firm. The dry rope started sliding quickly through Phil’s hands and he swore as he frantically tried to dislodge the irons; it was an impossible task. Seeing the rope uncoiling on the bottom of the boat, Phil knew it would be seconds before the irons were lost, so he reacted the way anyone would do it that situation, he quickly tied off the rope to the stainless steel stern cleat on the back of the boat. The rope caught taught and the corner of the stern dipped into the water.

 To his credit and experience, Phil quickly had his knife out, ready to cut the dragging irons’ line in the event the boat was breached. As insurance, I engaged the engine in reverse, taking up some of the strain and giving Phil some rope slack to work with. At what seemed an hour later, with Phil lifting and I maneuvering the boat, we managed to dislodge the irons and haul them to the surface, into the boat and back onto shore.

 Through the remainder of the day and all of the next, my river patrol area was confined to about 30 miles of waterway up and down the Winnipeg River from Otter Falls. Frequently I was back to the campground area and twice each day I made contact with Ben. Adding to our effort, the Parks Branch did intermittent shoreline patrols.

 Apart from this routine, the weekend was busy. Life went on in seemingly normal fashion. It struck me during one of my early visits to the campground that in the face of overwhelming tragedy for one family, most other families within the campground continued to enjoy the wind, water and weather, the social activities and recreational pastimes, seemingly without affect. In scratching the surface of this perception however, I found that the accident had been a sober reminder to those I spoke with of the overwhelming impact of accidental misadventure and the vulnerability we all face; a vulnerability that is more often than not governed by fate and circumstance.

 On Monday morning, Rob and I arrived at Otter Falls around 10:00 AM, feeling that during the course of the weekend, we had been able to show compassion and demonstrate professionalism in the face of a tragic circumstance. Tuesday morning however would severely alter the recovery process. On Tuesday morning I knew that the majority of campers would be gone back to the city and back into their normal routines. Likely, the majority of Ray’s family, perhaps even Ben as well, would also depart. I had a duty commitment at another critical event. The Parks Branch would continue intermittent patrols secure in the fact that nature would ultimately decide the date and place of Ray’s repatriation. I met with Ben and explained the change in plans; that after Monday, the effort would be scaled back. I told him that I’d check back one final time that afternoon. Then Rob and I launched the boat.

 The weather that day was sunny and warm, but a stiff breeze produced choppy waves up and down the Winnipeg River. While this combination was not the most conducive to boating inspections, Rob and I had checked about 20 boat operators before a late lunch break. We went back to the restaurant at Otter Falls for lunch. Most of the weekend campers had left the area and we easily found a clean table in a quiet corner of the dining room. Half-way through our meal, Ben came into the restaurant and sat down at our table. He ordered coffee.

 “I saw your boat at the dock and thought you’d be here. I wanted to thank you for all you’ve done for our family. We’ve all decided to leave, to go back home and wait. We’re all exhausted. We’re leaving before dark.”

 We spoke for awhile, recapped the weekend, talked a bit about Ray’s life and I promised to keep in touch until Ray’s body was found. Once all the words were said, we paused for an awkward moment. And then I had a thought.

 “How would you like to go out on the river with us?” I asked.

 “What do you mean?”

 “Just to get out, sort of see the area. The conditions are calming and most people are leaving. We have the time if you are interested?”

 “Yeah sure. I’ll tell Mom I’m going, and meet you at the dock in ten minutes.”

 We spent some time meandering in and around the accident location. Ben was now able to see and understand the cause of his father’s misfortune; how the current had sucked the tethered boat under the water and how the first efforts of correction and recovery quickly turned to ones of shock and frantic attempts at survival. And perhaps a new sense by Ben that Ray’s death had happened quickly; his suffering brief.

 Leaving Ben in the passenger seat for a moment of reflection, I shut the engine off, left my seat and went to the side of the boat. Rob was sitting on the back of the boat; it was a quiet moment for all. Reaching into my pocket I took out a coin, it was a nickel. I stood there at the side of boat rolling that nickel over and over in my fingers, my thoughts deep in reflection of the powers I wish I had. I wanted closure. Today!

Looking out over the choppy water and in a voice softer than a whisper I said,

 “Ray buddy, I’ve got to leave by 5. If you’re coming up today, that’s the deadline my friend.”

 I dropped the nickel over the side of the boat into the water and watched it tumble a couple of times until it disappeared. Then I turned away.

 We took Ben on a bit of a tour up river to the falls at Nutimik Lake. I think the time was good for us all and the increased cruising speed helped to clear the carbon from the big Evenrude.

 Upon our arrival back at Otter Falls, the weather had noticeably changed. The wind of the morning had faded to calm and the sun projected bright reflections on the glass like water’s surface; the river currents had softened. Transfixed by this transformation it surprised me to think that after a busy day of “weathering”, the day itself took pause to rest before its day was done.

 Facing into the sun I again shut the motor off to drift one more time before our day was done and Ben returned to his shattered world. Sitting there, unfocused eyes staring ahead, I was startled by Rob’s shout,

“What’s that?”

 Blinking to refocus my eyes I looked 30 meters directly ahead of the boat, and there were the back of the head and shoulders of Raymond Arthur Dubois. Instinctively I looked at my digital watch; the numerals displayed on the watch face were 5:00. Hello Ray!

 During the next moments of excited activity and chatter, an immediate problem surfaced in my mind; how to get Ben back to the shore so that we could recover his father’s corpse. That problem was resolved by Ben himself,

“Let’s go, he said.”

 “Ah, I’m not sure that’s a good idea Ben”, I warily proposed.

 “No, let’s go, we can’t lose him now.”

 We were quite the recovery team that afternoon as we pulled Ray over the side and into the bottom of the boat. Myself in uniform, representing authority with knowledge of what to do. Ben the grieving son, performing one last act of love for his father. Rob, scared to death at the thought of being in the proximity of, never mind holding onto, a dead middle aged man.

 Working together we did what we had to do; we brought Ray home.

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4 thoughts on “Tragedy at Otter Falls”

  1. Very well written Bill. I can’t help but feel that we are witnessing the start of a very successful writing career. I really enjoy reading your blog.

    Like

  2. Your flow smoother than the Winnipeg River. Am I missing entries between the first rookie day and this tragedy? Your transition between the Academy and the summer was profound.

    Like

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