The Whitewater Mile—a churning torrent of frigid water—cuts through the steep, black Lava Canyon of British Columbia’s Chilko River 300 km north of Vancouver. On Aug. 4, as 15 West German adventurers challenged its rapids, one of their two rafts crashed into a rock and hurled Rolf Meinhold, 35, to his death. He was the 12th person to die in B.C. whitewater rafting accidents in eight weeks. Indeed, only three days before Meinhold’s death five American advertising executives were killed in the same treacherous stretch of the Chilko, when they were pitched out of their raft after it hit a stretch of wild water and flipped on its side. As a result, B.C. Environment Minister Bruce Strachan last week renewed a drive for tighter regulations to govern the popular sport.
All navigable waters in Canada are subject to federal jurisdiction under the Canada Shipping Act. But although white-water rafting draws more thrill-seekers to both Ontario and Quebec than to British Columbia, the Pacific province is the only one where rules on rafting apply. That is because British Columbia is the only province that has requested to have rafting regulated. Provincial officials codified the standards, in consultation with Ottawa, after three raftsmen drowned in 1979 on the Fraser River. But B.C. authorities only asked for the provincially supervised restrictions to apply to the province’s seven most widely travelled waterways. (They added an eighth this year.)
Under the rules, commercial rafting companies must have permits, and their guides must be trained and licensed, and must give their clients safety briefings. Strachan has announced that the ministry has recommended to the federal government that the regulations be expanded to cover all rivers in the province. And he said that the ministry will soon appoint an industry advisory committee to recommend new minimum safety standards for the sport—a $4-million business in British Columbia that attracted 55,000 riders last year. Indeed, the ministry had already begun a review in July after an accident on Canada Day killed four B.C. residents and an Australian on the unrestricted Elaho River, 100 km north of Vancou-
ver. In June a rafter died on another unrestricted river, the Illecillewaet.
Officials in Ottawa say that they expect amendments to the Canada Shipping Act to take effect this week. But some of British Columbia’s 36 registered commercial river outfitters report that bookings have dropped by as much as 40 per cent since the accident on July 1, and they say that they are concerned that insurance companies will revoke their $l-million liability policies.
In Ontario and Quebec, a self-regulating association of eight operators, responsible for 95 per cent of the region’s $20-million white-water industry, follows guidelines that it established and that are more stringent than the standards in British Columbia. The Eastern Canadian River Outfitters Association, formed in 1981, requires that guides have first aid training and that trip leaders be proficient in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. In addition, helmets are mandatory, as are wet suits or other isothermic gear when a combination of air and water temperatures is less than the equivalent of 38°C.
As well, says 30-year-old Hugh Mackenzie, general manager of Wilderness Tours Ltd., 40 km east of Pembroke, Ont., on the Ottawa River, rafting conditions are far safer in the east. There, the water is relatively warm, there are calm pools between rapids, and operators have set up regular radio communication posts. By contrast, British Columbia has longer, swifter sections of frigid and continuous rapids without access to calm havens.
But evidently many of the enthusiasts who head west to tackle the sport have not considered its dangers. The five Americans who died on the Chilko on Aug. 1 —including Richard O’Reilly, 65, who handled .the advertising for President Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, and Robert Goldstein, 50, vicepresident of advertising for Cincinnati, Ohio-based Proctor & Gamble Co.— were not wearing helmets or wet suits, although all were wearing life jackets. According to one of the survivors, John Collins, 56, president of Oakland, Calif.-based Clorox Co., the group— which had been meeting every year or two for about 15 years to relax in the outdoors—looked on white-water rafting “as sort of an ersatz roller coaster.” But now, with the series of fatal white-water accidents receiving international attention—and the particular concern in British Columbia about safety standards—there is cause for optimism that the sport will recover from its summer of despair.
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