Cowichan River users are sounding the alarm after a 46-year-old man nearly died when he got caught under a tree in the river on Canada Day.
The tree had fallen across the river at Horseshoe Bend about two kilometres down from Skutz Falls in early June and was quickly declared a hazard. At some point it was cut but the remnants remain in the river.
On July 1, Victoria’s Melissa Ollsin, her husband Charles Appleford, their kids, and friends Luis Soto and Mark Guy were tubing on the river and their pleasant float turned into a rescue about an hour into the journey.
“We started at the Skutz Falls fish ladder and our plan was to get out at Marie Canyon. We got out just before Horseshoe Bend because one of the guys said we should get out and suss out the little waterfall before going down, which we did,” Ollsin explained. “It looked to be alright although there was a log jam there. We proceeded and got through.”
But the current took about half the people that were with the group right into the path of the log.
“One little girl that was with us, who is 12, actually ended up going right under. She fell out of her boat and went under the log but got swept out right away,” Ollsin said. “My husband also went into the log and got out of his boat to walk back and felt himself getting pulled under the log but he managed to stabilize himself and get down.”
The group opted to take a break and sit at the bottom of the waterfall and watch other folks come down for a while.
Ollsin said roughly every third person was shot into the tree.
“Some people went over it, some people fell out but at one point these two guys came down, one guy came perfectly in his boat and then his buddy came along, hit the log, fell out and we were watching him and all of a sudden his boat came out, his oars came out, and he wasn’t following.
Within seconds Soto and Appleford jumped up and were running through the water toward the log.
“Luis got to him right away and the guy was completely wedged underneath the log. He was trying to pull his head up out of water and he could barely get every once in awhile his lips above.”
Soto took those opportunities to fill the man’s mouth with air.
“He was doing mouth-to-mouth under water,” she said of Soto. “My husband was pulling his arms and head trying to keep him up just enough so he could get air and so Luis could give him mouth-to-mouth.”
Guy was then able to get to the scene and took turns with Soto.
But the man’s face was still mostly underwater.
“He had no pulse. He was dead. Completely purple,” Ollsin said.
It took a few minutes but slowly more people joined the rescue effort. Their goal was to dislodge the rocks under the man but every time they tried they’d get pushed down the waterfall and would have to work hard to get back up.
“Finally he gave and it took like six of them to pull him onto the log,” Ollsin noted. “He was dead. They started to give him CPR on the log, moved him to shore and then continued to give him chest compressions. They took turns doing it. After about five minutes he came back to life.”
Remarkably about a half an hour later, the man was up and walking around.
Lake Cowichan firefighters and EHS arrived to take over care.
She said she believes he was taken to Cowichan District Hospital and later released.
“That guy was lucky the guys that were with us reacted so fast otherwise he totally would have been dead,” she said.
Ollsin is calling for the tree’s removal.
“It was cut so you can bypass one side of it but it’s still there and now it poses even more of a hazard because probably every third tuber that goes down there gets swept into that tree,” she said. “My hope is I’m trying to find anybody I can to just get the word out so hopefully somebody deals with it right away but also so people know that it’s there and get out before it and just walk around the tree. It poses a serious danger.”
Rob Simpson was one of the six to eight men that helped pull the struggling rafter out of the water.
He, too, is calling for the tree’s destruction.
“It needs to be removed before this happens again,” he said.
The Reno, Nevada native was in town visiting friends at the Lake. He didn’t think his holiday would include a river rescue.
“I’m just glad it didn’t end as badly as it could easily have. It gives you a new respect for what few feet of water has the power to do to even a full grown man,” Simpson said.
In an update Wednesday, July 5, the Cowichan River Provincial Park website included the warning: “Hazard in Cowichan River between Skutz Falls and Marie Canyon.”
It urged anyone using the Cowichan River between Skutz Falls and Marie Canyon to “use extreme caution as there is a large, partially submerged tree in the rapids near Horseshoe Bend that should be avoided.
“BC Parks has been working with swift-water rescue technicians and an arborist to manage the hazard.
“As much of the tree has been removed as safely possible – water levels have prohibited full removal. Water levels in the river have receded and attempts to remove more of the tree are continuing,” the message continued.
The ministry went into action as the problem in question is within a provincial park.
Normally, if a tree falls from privately owned land into the river, then the landowner in question would be the first person looking at solving the problem, but this is not usually the kind of thing for which they would keep a standby crew, according to a spokesperson.
According to Cynthia Lockrey, CVRD’s manager of strategic services, problems like trees falling into rivers do not fall under the jurisdiction of regional districts.
The CVRD might apply to the ministry for funding to clear a problem but it would have to be something along the lines of a major logjam, she said.