Safety measures at Elk Falls are under scrutiny following the latest tragedy at the popular Campbell River outdoor recreation spot.
A women from the Netherlands died there on Aug. 2 when she slipped on the rocks upstream from the falls and drowned.
Many people just aren’t familiar with the risks at places like Elk Falls, said Grant Cromer, manager of Campbell River Search and Rescue (CRSAR).
“Tourists, for example, or people that maybe don’t recreate as much, wouldn’t understand the hazards of just walking right up to the edge of that river,” said Cromer.
While the latest victim died upstream from the mighty cascade, the fast-moving waters have also carried several visitors over the waterfalls in past years.
Questions previously arose about safety at the park in 2011, when another tourist died there. Cornelius Bot, also a tourist from Holland, was taking photos when he fell into the river and was swept over the falls. In 2006, Tim Arthur, a Nanaimo man, was getting a drink of water when he fell in and went over.
BC Parks installed new safety features near the top of the waterfall in 2012, including hazard signage using international symbols. This came after consultations with groups such as police, ambulance services and search and rescue, said Cromer.
The local search and rescue group doesn’t advocate for building fences to enclose all the dangerous areas at the falls, Cromer said. But he acknowledged that some people aren’t familiar with the risks at the site.
“You can’t make signage and gates blocking people from every single dangerous spot in the world,” he said. “That’s not what we do.”
But he said safety measures had been improved dramatically since the 2011 death in the area close to the waterfalls.
“The signage is very clear: hazards exist beyond this point, fast-moving water,” he said.
Cromer noted that a visible chain barrier is in place. Past that point, on the smooth and slimy rocks near the top of the waterfalls, people are risking their lives.
The chance of survival for someone who trips into the water there is slim to nil, said Cromer. The speed of the water in the 20-30 metres just before Elk Falls provides very little reaction time, and the cold shock and mental stress of falling into the water compounds the difficulty.
Cromer said he’s not aware of anyone surviving the 25-metre plummet.
There’s at least one “house sized” rock formation at the bottom of the falls, which is only visible during low flows. Most people who go over the falls probably strike that rock, said Cromer, who has repelled into the pool several times, either for practice or for body recoveries, and once to rescue a dog.
“Most of the people that I’ve recovered have suffered some kind of trauma,” he said. “It’s been broken bones or crushed skull, that kind of stuff.”
People who take risks by Elk Falls aren’t just putting their own life in danger, he said. It’s also an extreme risk for search and rescue volunteers and other first responders.
“It’s not a play environment,” he said. “It’s a lot of water cascading down in there, there’s a lot spray, it’s very noisy, there’s lots of hazards.”
The woman who died on Aug. 2 wasn’t swept over the falls but was found in one of the upper pools, an area where people are known to swim. But strong currents make the area risky, and Cromer advised people not to swim within 200-300 metres of the falls.
RCMP Staff Sergeant Troy Beauregard said the rocky banks of the pool are high, making it difficult for swimmers to haul themselves out.
“It’s almost like getting out of a pool without a ladder,” he said, noting that the swiftness of the current compounds the difficulty.
He urged people to err on the side of on caution while recreating, to avoid another tragedy.
Asked if any new safety measures would be put in place following the latest tragedy, David Karn, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment, said “BC Parks takes the safety of our visitors very seriously.”
He said the BC Coroner is in charge of investigating “all unnatural, sudden and unexpected, unexplained or unattended deaths.” The Coroner’s Service then makes recommendations “to improve public safety and prevent death in similar circumstances,” said Karn. He added that BC Parks would carefully consider any of those recommendations.