“It could have been a lot worse.”
Mark Waters is recounting the story that unfolded over the weekend that saw his son Richard Waters’ planned one-week canoe trip from Dickson Dam to Drumheller turn into a near-disaster.
Rainfall and the fast rising of the Red Deer River brought the trip to a sudden and dramatic end for the Red Deer man.
Richard, 32, had left Dickson Dam on Wednesday, his father Mark, also from Red Deer, said Monday.
On Friday afternoon, Alberta Environment did issue a high-stream advisory for the river but that was upstream of Dickson Dam. Stream levels were rising but no major flooding was expected.
That afternoon, as Richard got closer to Red Deer, he called his father at 5 p.m. and asked him to meet him with more ice at the canoe launch in Red Deer, located in Great West Adventure Park near the BMX track. Richard had recently become unemployed and just wanted to take a bit of a hiatus by taking the solo trip on the river.
Mark met him at about 5:30 p.m. at the canoe launch and they visited for a bit before Richard jumped back in his canoe, loaded with gear. The canoe also had a nice new $550 trolling motor and battery that Mark had bought for his son a month ago.
The next time Mark heard from Richard, at 5 a.m. Saturday, he was calling on his cellphone, scared, as his tent was being overrun by rising river water, and much of his gear, his life jacket and the canoe had been swept away.
Neither knew that water was beginning to be released from Dickson Dam. On Friday, the Red Deer River was flowing at a relatively quiet 20.3 cubic metres per second (cm/s) within the Red Deer city limits. Overnight, by early Saturday morning, things changed dramatically, and it was flowing at 103.3 cm/s. By Sunday it had nearly doubled at what was now a roaring river at 196.2 cm/s.
Richard had made his way down the river and through the city on Friday evening, and ended up pulling in and camping on the north side of the river, about 30 feet away from the river’s edge. He was about one km downstream from the boat launch at River Bend Golf Club.
With a last name like Waters, it seems apt that Mark has been canoeing all his life and Richard has been canoeing for about 20 years. They have done numerous canoeing camping trips from Dickson down to Content Bridge at Hwy 21.
“He called me at 5:30 in the morning (Saturday) telling me that he was in his tent. He had kept his cell phone, thank God. … with the clothes on his back he opened up his tent to find that the river had risen two to three feet and the water was rushing over his entire spot and the only thing that was keeping him from sliding into the river was that he had a trolling motor battery that was wedged in with his camping chair against a tree.”
“Everything was gone … He’s totally bewildered by this and scared.”
Mark told his son to pull everything up off the water right away, get it at least 20 feet away from water, and to gather his thoughts and call him back in half an hour. “I’m getting ready to come and get you.”
When Richard called back, he said he would make his way across the river. He walked west, about a kilometre upstream, and then swam the river back downstream to the launch at Riverbend.
“At 7 in the morning when I finally got there, all I saw was this completely drenched wet kid walking up the hill with the rain pouring and all he had was his tackle box.” And his cell phone. He was cold and exhausted.
On Sunday morning they took Mark’s canoe and headed across the fast-moving river to where the tent and boat motor and battery were left. But when they got there, the river was even higher, and although the tent was further back from the river, the trolling motor was gone.
Mark said that it seemed as though someone had moved the tent further from the river after Richard left and may have taken the motor, although the RCMP have no report of anyone turning it in.
They gathered up the tent and the few items still in it. Coming back across the river to the Riverbend launch was a very quick trip. “It took 30 seconds to go across … It was like holy smoley, we came barrelling in and, like wham!”
He said his son was more “freaked out” by the whole thing than anything.
“The river was very good for him when I met him on Friday.” Mark thinks it may have risen about five feet since.
He hopes they will eventually retrieve the lost gear, including the red canoe with white interior, and blue cooler and black trolling motor.