EGAN: AND WE DO NOTH­ING?

Two more die in treach­er­ous waters

Ottawa Citizen - - Front Page - KELLY EGAN

There is a warn­ing sign on Bate Is­land, scene of two more drown­ings in the mid­dle of the rush­ing Ot­tawa River on the week­end. It cau­tions against feed­ing the birds.

There is no men­tion of fish­ing, swim­ming, wad­ing, boat­ing or cur­rents — treach­er­ous or oth­er­wise — be­neath the Cham­plain Bridge. There is no men­tion that, de­pend­ing on the time of year, as much wa­ter can flow by Bate Is­land in one second as tum­bles off Ni­a­gara Falls.

But there are two more dead. And we do noth­ing?

Per­haps the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Com­mis­sion, which owns the is­land be­low the bridge be­tween On­tario and Que­bec, has no me­mory. Per­haps we can help:

On Aug. 3, 1989 (how the cal­en­dar is eerie), a 10-year-old girl slipped un­der the sur­face of the river as her fam­ily “watched help­lessly” from their picnic site on the is­land. She was pulled out, barely alive, and was still un­con­scious in hos­pi­tal the next day.

In 2000, when the wa­ter was still high in May, a 30-year-old man went miss­ing as he was fly-fish­ing near the is­land. He was found about 10 days later, still in his chest waders, 35 or so me­tres from the is­land, where his car and dog awaited his return.

In June 2003, a 22-year-old man drowned while sav­ing his brother, only 13, who had slipped off the rocks near the is­land.

The older man had been fish­ing nearby. The Ci­ti­zen pub­lished an ab­so­lutely heart­break­ing photo of sur­viv­ing fam­ily mem­bers on shore, faces shat­tered.

In Au­gust 2014, a 12-year-old boy was pulled safely from the wa­ter near the is­land by two res­cuers. Trag­i­cally, a 29-yearold Good Sa­mar­i­tan drowned in the res­cue ef­fort. He lived in the same apart­ment build­ing as the saved boy. They had gone to the river’s edge to fish. One went on with his life, one died a hero.

This past week­end, a cel­e­bra­tory fam­ily picnic on the is­land turned into a heart-wrench­ing at­tempt to save two fish­er­men who sud­denly found them­selves in the swift cur­rent be­low the is­land. Res­cuers tried to reach the men, but had to turn back given the very real pos­si­bil­ity they would be pulled un­der too.

So, now what? Maybe a sign is not the an­swer. Maybe the

NCC has too much shore­line, too many wa­ter­ways, to prop­erly warn peo­ple about dan­gers. And maybe dis­cour­ag­ing fish­ing or swim­ming in the right spot is the wrong thing to do. It’s a free coun­try; no­body owns the river.

But I ex­pected to find some kind of generic warn­ing when I toured the is­land on a som­bre Tues­day af­ter­noon. (Does the NCC not tell you how fast to pedal on the bike path?) Only spot­ted ma­raud­ing geese and squawk­ing gulls, rest­ing ducks with their heads tucked in, ecstatic black squir­rels and gi­ant maple trees, a stray bob­ber.

It is a sweet spot. From the east end of the is­land, there are views of Par­lia­ment Hill and down­town. For any­one stuck in an apart­ment in the west end, it is a quiet escape into feath­ers and sticks, be­low the grime of the city.

At­tached to a fence on the north side (pop­u­lar with whitewater pad­dlers) is a lifebuoy and a plaque that reads: “In me­mory of all those taken by this river. Emer­gen­cies only — PLEASE re­place after res­cue.”

The river did it. The river took them, you see. Took all of them.

So, maybe a sign does noth­ing. (The NCC offers con­do­lences to the friends and fam­i­lies but says it needs more in­for­ma­tion be­fore de­cid­ing whether change in “us­age or ac­cess” is re­quired.)

But think of what the pan­demic has done to our sum­mer. Re­cre­ation pat­terns are dis­rupted, with trips can­celled, Bri­tan­nia Beach closed, with the hottest July since Grand­dad was a pup, cooped-up peo­ple are ven­tur­ing to new places along the river.

I see fam­i­lies up­stream of Remic Rapids, where they never much ven­tured be­fore, with um­brel­las and cool­ers. Fur­ther west, Con­stance Bay is, at times, del­uged with day-trip­pers. Mooney’s Bay, early on in the pan­demic, nearly en­dured a riot of the stir crazy.

So, maybe many new peo­ple are dis­cov­er­ing Bate Is­land for the first time and wad­ing into shal­low wa­ter that looks pretty harm­less, rod in hand, un­til they take too many steps.

(The On­tario gov­ern­ment, even, rec­om­mends “Cham­plain Bridge” as a place to fish in ur­ban Ot­tawa.)

For those peo­ple, surely, a sign might serve as an alert?

Put po­etry aside: the river doesn’t “take” peo­ple. We lose them to it by not pre­par­ing for, by be­ing un­aware of, very real dan­ger.

To con­tact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email kegan@ postmedia.com.

KELLY EGAN

A sign ref­er­ences the suc­ces­sion of vic­tims of the fast-mov­ing Ot­tawa River off Bate Is­land.

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