One of the most popular summer activities in the area is floating down the McLeod River. On any given hot day, the parking lot at the tubing put-in location is full of local and visiting people, taking advantage of the natural landscape. So far this year, the Whitecourt Fire Department has responded to four water-based emergencies. "That's pretty high," remarked Fire Chief Brian Wynn. "It seems to be only getting higher too."
He figured that the lifting of COVID restrictions had inspired people to get out. "People are doing stuff, which is good, but you still have to do it safely and know what you're doing." Cpl. Mike Hibbs, Whitecourt RCMP, agreed that activity on the river had increased due partly to the hotter weather and because restrictions had encouraged people to find more outdoor-related things to do.
"People need to know where they are going," said Chief Wynn. "Some people were floating the river from the Pembina campground, and they thought that the river came back through the campground. If you are that unknowledgeable, then you should not be in the river. You should know where you are putting in and where you are getting out and the estimated time of how long it's going to take," explained Chief Wynn.
Cpl. Hibbs said they receive regular calls from tubers. "We get calls all the time about somebody who gets lost or can't get to shore." Chief Wynn said the solution to that is easy. "If you have multiple members in your party, you can tie the inflatables to keep you together. People go at different speeds because of different tubes and also different weights. Do not let your party get separated. Stay together."
Both men said that communication and situational awareness are keys to staying safe and having a good time from start to finish. "If you can't swim, then you need a lifejacket on. There are places on the McLeod that you have to walk across, but there are also areas that are ten to fifteen feet deep. The river is not one condition for the whole time. There are rapids, corners, log jams and logs underwater, and there are currents under the water. It can push you into a log, and there is no way you have enough strength to push yourself off of it. There are also big boulders. The current can take you there. There are all kinds of hazards that you might not be aware of until it's immediately right in front of you," remarked Chief Wynn.
"The current may tip the tube over or obstructions underneath the water that you don't see. A tree or a rock could knock you off your tube," said Cpl. Hibbs. "Then, when you are in the water, the surface underneath your feet becomes very slippery." He added that people sometimes end up having to walk, and some have tried going through the bush. "They sometimes aren't aware of their surroundings, and they can walk in a direction that is totally away from civilization."
Chief Wynn said that another factor that can make a bushwalk difficult is that often tubers don't bring along footwear. If your inflatable pops or an emergency gets you off the water, then what? "If you are two or three miles upstream, we may have to walk to you, or you might have to walk out. If you are floating down the river in bare feet, what if you have to walk out of the bush? It's not really a 911 call because you don't have your shoes," said Chief Wynn.
Both Chief Wynn and Cpl. Hibbs want area residents to enjoy the natural attraction but hope that people will plan first. "It's like going sledding in the mountains and not taking a backpack with your safety gear," began Chief Wynn. "You should not be doing that." For those who do need help, having a plan ahead of time can make all the difference. "On the river, help can't just reach you at a moment's notice," said Chief Wynn. Cpl. Hibbs concurred. "When you're on the water, we need more resources, obviously, and most times, we need to get a boat involved. There is a lot of preparation for getting onto the water, which will sometimes delay the process of finding somebody, and it's very important that we find somebody quickly if they do go in the water," Cpl. Hibbs explained.
"Rivers may not look very dangerous on top, but a lot of rivers have a huge undertow that can take you underneath very quickly if you are not prepared. The number one thing is never to tube alone. That way, if you're not a great swimmer and something does happen, at least you have some help to get out."
Those hanging out near the river are reminded that riverbanks are continuously eroding. "There are two big things in the world that erode, and that's wind and water. The river is always moving and always changing. Even if you boated on the river last year, the river is now different because of those freak floods, sandbars shifting, water levels and changing whirlpools," said Chief Wynn. He said that it comes down to the user being aware and being safe.
Are you taking in a longer float by getting in the river further upstream? Cpl. Hibbs recommends some extra supplies. "Bring things like first aid, food, and water just in case something happens, and we have to come looking for you."
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press