A group of teenage boys narrowly escaped death on the Campbell River Sunday – just two days after a swiftwater rescue specialist warned the community about the danger to inner tubers posed by a fallen tree.
“Okay, this is my time. I am going to die now,” Blaine Olney remembers thinking when he was underneath another youth who was entangled in the same tree.
Olney was under Tyler Scorgie who was also facing up to the possibility that his life could end soon.
“Todd (French) yelled at me, and Todd’s quiet, but he yelled saying ‘Just keep your toes up’ and this is where I felt the most fear I have ever felt in my life,” said Scorgie. “I knew that this was it, I was sure the end was near and that there was no way I was getting out of this alive, literally.”
Scorgie, Olney, French and three other boys – Ryan Chickite, Bailey Boschman and Landon Walters – had decided to tube down the river on Sunday. Some of them had done it the day before and even encountered the same tree without mishap. The tree sticks out into a channel on the north side of the river. It came down the slope during a mud slide last December.
Jamie Turko, a swiftwater rescue specialist with Campbell River Search and Rescue contacted the Mirror last week to warn the community about the very thing that happened on Sunday.
“It’s called a strainer,” Turko said about the maple tree the youths got tangled up in. “The main current comes right down and pushes right into this big old maple there that’s fallen in. Any of the tubers or swimmers or air mattresses are going to be sucked right into it.”
On Sunday, the six youths decided to tie all their inner tubes together and float down the river.
Nobody knows what was different Sunday, compared to their run on Saturday, but for some reason, the inner tubes were swept straight towards the tree.
A few metres before the strainer is a smaller tree that was bouncing up and down in the current. That tree hit the group first.
“The bouncing branch hit most of us in the head or torso,” Scorgie said. “But after that it was hell.
“The tubes flipped and everyone was everywhere. “
Then they continued to be swept toward the strainer that Turko had warned everyone about.
“We were swimming as hard as we could to get away from the tree,” Olney said.
French was the first to hit it and everyone followed in.
“All I remember was getting sucked in,” Olney said.
Scorgie was forced against the tree trying to get out and Olney was pressed against him.
Scorgie told the story on Facebook: “I was slammed into the tree. I was pulled under for who knows how long, but it felt like hours to me. I pulled my head out above the water, just enough to grab some air. By now two of my friends have gotten through.
“Todd had somehow managed to get on top of a larger submerged branch. As my legs were jammed, twisted, and unable to move because of the currents and the tree, Todd tried pulling me up.
“But the branch I had most of my weight on broke, releasing one of my legs. Todd pulled on me again and by this time I moved up a lot. I was still jammed between the two branches but I was kneeling on them now.”
This was Scorgie’s most terrifying moment.
“We’re only 16 and this was close to death for us,” he said. “But I trusted my friend, and I jumped, covered my head and kept my toes up, after bumping and scraping across a few more branches I popped out back into the usual currents.”
Jarring Scorgie loose freed Olney momentarily only to get jammed again.
“I was under the water for like three minutes,” Olney said in an interview with the Mirror. “That was the point where I thought I am not getting out of here at all.”
But Olney managed to get some “wiggle room” and came free. He felt his head roll under the main trunk of the tree and he popped up on the other side “gasping for air.” He then continued to float down the channel to a shallow point of land where it met the main course of the river.
He joined up with Walters and Boschman who had floated free earlier.
Shortly afterwards Scorgie came floating down. Chickite and French were the last to get free of the tree. They freed the tubes and then floated past the point, unable to land at the same place. They met up later on the road.
The two boys who spoke to the Mirror, Scorgie and Olney, were still shaken up Monday and were happy to hear that the tree in question is being removed Friday.
The experience was terrifying at times, surreal at others. Olney said when he was under the water there was just a lot of bubbles but because he was pumped full of adrenaline, he doesn’t remember there being any noise.
He attributes his escape from the tree’s clutches to realizing that he had to calm himself while under the water.
He also recognizes that French’s actions in freeing Scorgie freed him from the first branch.
Scorgie, meanwhile, has no doubt who was the hero in the situation.
“But this is a story I’ll probably remember forever,” he said. “And Todd will probably be my friend forever – he saved my life. No joking involved.”
The youths didn’t just tube down the river on a whim. Their parents insisted they have a plan and made sure they had life jackets as well as adults waiting at both ends.
But as Olney’s mother Shelly says, “Bad things happen, even when you are prepared.”
She wants the community to understand how close they came to losing four boys on Sunday.
On Friday, Turko, Steve Harding of Timberwolf Tree Services and others will meet to remove the tree.