Rough waters halt search for missing swimmers

MOON RIVER, Ont. — A sandal swirling in the current, beer cans, abandoned T-shirts and shoes strewn on rocks — remnants of a long weekend gone awry at a spot where vacationers often go cliff-jumping into a flooded eddy in Ontario’s cottage country.

MOON RIVER, Ont. — A sandal swirling in the current, beer cans, abandoned T-shirts and shoes strewn on rocks — remnants of a long weekend gone awry at a spot where vacationers often go cliff-jumping into a flooded eddy in Ontario’s cottage country.

Three swimmers went into the water at Moon Falls — remote rapids on Moon River in the Muskoka region — and disappeared Sunday afternoon.

The search for them was suspended Monday after police deemed the rapids too tumultuous for their dive team. They plan to resume the search Tuesday.

Seven people believed to be in their 20s got into the water Sunday but only four came out.

The swimmers entered the lower portion of the waterfalls where the water moved faster than normal and was half a metre higher than usual due to recent heavy rainfall.

Two suffered minor injuries while two others were airlifted to Parry Sound Hospital after having “near-drowning experiences,” said police. They were released Sunday night.

Names of the missing swimmers have not been released. They are presumed drowned.

A provincial police helicopter, a dozen police officers with the provincial Underwater Search and Recovery Unit and a coroner were at the falls Monday morning, said Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Greg Allison.

One police diver entered the water on a rope but the water flow made it too dangerous to continue. The rough waters forced police to suspend the search until Tuesday morning, Allison said.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Ontario Hydro shut off the water flow from a dam upstream, but police said it could take more than 24 hours for the torrents of water to stop pouring over the falls because the dam is kilometres away.

At least five friends and family members of the missing people gathered Monday on one side of the river, where the three Toronto-area residents are presumed drowned.

A group of nearly 100 campers gathered on the other bank Sunday afternoon after hearing the shocking news.

William Martin, 21, of Barrie, Ont. was camping with a group of friends at a site across from the falls. He said he saw three helicopters arrive, a procession of stretchers leave and a visibly distraught friend crying out.

“He was crying and shouting on the other side,” Martin said. “He was pacing around and people were trying to calm him.”

Martin, who often camps on the river, said many tenters cut their weekend short Sunday after the incident.

He said he usually joins a line of jumpers, but decided against it after seeing the unusually turbulent water. “It’s totally not doable this year. The water level covers a lot of rocks …(It’s) much, much higher than in the past,” Martin said.

“It’s pretty vicious up there right now, it’s not a good swimming spot,” he said while waiting in the rain for a boat to come fetch his group.

The site is a popular camping destination about a two-hour drive from Toronto. Numerous tents are set up along Crown land by the river, an area only reachable by boat.

Bill McRobb, who owns a marina on the lake and charters people out to camp sites near the falls, said the group had been staying at a cabin on the lake Sunday when they rented a boat from another marina.

The group had inquired about renting a boat with him, but he refused because they were careless when they last rented a few weeks ago.

Local residents and frequent campers said the stronger currents of the waterfall caused by recent rainfall may have contributed to the presumed drownings.

A local resident, who did not want to be named, said she and other locals don’t visit the falls on weekends any longer because of the crowd they attract.

She has often carried away piles of garbage and empty alcohol containers partiers left behind.

The woman, who came to pray at the site of the accident Monday, said she, her kids and others who know the area often jump from a rock close to the bank.

But they would not jump from the rock in the middle of the falls, she said, because there is too much debris below and the whitecapped water made it impossible to see what’s there.

It’s the third deadly incident in the area this long weekend.

On Friday, 46-year-old John-Paul Farrell of Stouffville, Ont., died after hitting a wave and going overboard while boating in Loon Lake near Gravenhurst.

Provincial police said Farrell was not wearing a life jacket.

Two people are also believed to have died after a small float plane crashed into the woods near Torrance, Ont. Monday afternoon.

Their names have not been released.

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