Wandering into Tragedy Part One: May 10, 2014, 7 pm.
It’s not every day you wander into tragedy when you’re out for your evening walk. But that’s what happened to me last night. We’d heard the sirens earlier around dinnertime. And in a small village, when you hear sirens you start to mentally run your friends and acquaintances through your mind. Wondering, who could it be? And hoping it’s none of them. But chances are, even if they aren’t one of your friends, you know them to see them. It’s that kind of place.
Anne and I were headed for New Denver’s rocky beach for a dose of clean, clear Valhalla air. We’d stopped at tiny Greer Park where Toru Fujibayashi’s sculpture is framed by the snow-dusted mountain ranges reflecting in Slocan Lake. I was just remarking that I’d forgotten my camera when we noticed a guy with a safety vest and walkie-talkie looking out at the lake. About the same moment, I noticed the blue flash through the trees of the police boat. Once again, living in this place, you know that means they’re looking for someone who’s in trouble.
It was about seven o’clock. My initial Canadian urge to politely turn away and leave them to their business was overcome by curiosity. I went over to ask the man with the YRB highways truck what was going on. His face was inexpressibly sad. “Some kids out there in a canoe, tipped over.” Anne asked if we could help. “More eyes on the lake are always better,” he shrugged. As it happened, we always carry binoculars for bird watching. At my favourite place beneath the shade of the cottonwood I saw one of our Village crew, combing the shoreline. Another face of infinite sadness. “My God. Four kids.”
So we began picking our way along the beach, binoculars trained on the lake in the direction of Bigelow Bay. It seemed desperate. But at such moments you do it anyway regardless of the probabilities. Slocan Lake at its deepest can reach 500 meters. At its best it takes a hardy soul to swim in it even in the summer months. But during spring runoff, with all the glacial melt, its temperatures are frigid to say the least. As soon as someone hits the water the cold will send them into shock long before hypothermia begins to set in. A person in shock may not be able to make rational decisions. It’s a narrow window of survival.
We stopped in at our friends’ house on Eldorado Avenue, the lakefront street with prime views of Slocan Lake and Valhalla Provincial Park across the water. Our friends told us that they’d seen four people paddling a canoe headed toward Bigelow Bay about 5:45 pm. They remarked on how odd it was to see four people in a canoe that small. By the time a jogger saw them from the bay, minutes later, they were already in trouble. All he could see was two people clinging to an overturned red canoe. He contacted 911.
Emergency services and the RCMP were mobilized within about a half hour, and managed to pull Lily from the water and get her to emergency. This had occurred by the time we arrived at 7 pm. We could see scattered individuals also looking out at the lake through binos. The initial lone RCMP boat returned to the marina to pick up another four boats, one of them, judging by the similar flashing lights, an emergency/rescue boat. They set up a grid and combed in a northerly direction toward Bigelow Bay. Other emergency personnel walked the shoreline below the Molly Hughes trail. When I saw the red canoe—really no more than a two-seater—I was aghast that they’d crammed four people into it. As we made our way toward the boathouse that juts into Bigelow Bay, we saw what appeared to be groups of parents and others huddled together. That made me stop to consider: should we go and offer comfort? Or leave them to their anxious vigil?
In the end we were drawn as if to the outer fields of a magnet, but stepping lightly. Not calling out or asking a bunch of questions. Just to be there if needed. Groups of high school kids were cuddling, their gaze fixed on the lake. Parents, friends and relatives too, one group on the concrete pad leading to the boathouse, holding each other tightly and fixed to the blue-steely waters in the shadow of the Valhallas. The light was beginning to fail. Even so, the rescue boats continued their relentless, systematic sweep, keeping the spotlights trained on the water. A local shop owner recruited me to follow one of the boats through the binos. Watching for a sign, anything.
A group of teenagers arrived, anxious to help out. They wanted to head off on the Molly Hughes trail in case their friends might have swum ashore somewhere below. Our shop owner, a nine-year veteran of the local fire department, sternly dissuaded them from going. “If something happens to you then we’ve got another problem on our hands. Just hang out with us. We’ll build a fire.” A young man about 24 arrived with a backpack stocked with flashlights, blankets and food. He’d grown up in these mountains with a savvy father for a teacher. But we still dissuaded him from going. In the end he melted back into the darkness so for all we know he may have gone anyway. “That’s why I had to quit the fire department,” said my friend. “I just couldn’t take it anymore, going out and looking for kids.”
My father’s idea of a holiday when we were growing up was to backpack into the wilderness with a canoe strapped to your back. So we were drilled with survival skills. Even if you have no paper you can always start a fire by using the dried-out lower branches of most evergreens. The lichen known as ‘old man’s beard’ will also do. Once the idea to make a fire was announced, everyone swung into action scavenging wood, most of it too wet to burn. Luckily our friend the shopkeeper/fire department veteran came equipped with a propane torch. I found a downed, dead tree and began stripping off its smaller branches. Soon the beach was lit by a beacon of fire. But still some preferred to huddle in the darkness a distance away.
By this time, somewhere around 10 pm, the darkness was becoming too thick. By about 10:30 the rescue boats had to pack it in. No one wanted to say so but after this many hours since Lily and her three friends went into the water, you’re looking to reclaim bodies, not survivors. Not long after the boats returned to the marina the emergency crew at the park above the beach shut down the generator. By 10:45 pm people were beginning to trickle away. With the darkness the energy began to ebb. First light would come early and with it the return of the rescue crews.
After five hours of working on Lily—around 11 pm—the team at the emergency ward stop. Although a pulse and respiration had been raised, she was too weak to revive. Strangely enough it was about that time we all left the beach. It’s as if we were tuned in somehow, Anne said. It was truly shattering news—she and her mother had been neighbours when Lily was only a little girl. It’s hard to even begin to know how to cope with such tragedy. In a community of just 500 souls, it touches everyone to the marrow.