EGAN: AND WE DO NOTHING?
Two more die in treacherous waters
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.
A sign references the succession of victims of the fast-moving Ottawa River off Bate Island.