Visitation down, outdoor fatalities up in K-Country

KANANASKIS COUNTRY – The number of fatalities Kananaskis Country's search and rescue team has responded to this year is up 50 per cent, despite one of the quietest summers for calls in five years.

In an Oct. 11 Kananaskis Improvement District (KID) council meeting, Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) Kananaskis West area manager Debbie Mucha, said Kananaskis Country Public Safety (KCPS) had responded to a total of 15 fatalities, up from an average of about 10. Almost half of those were fatal drownings.

“It really was a very unfortunate season,” she said. “Most folks probably heard about the multiple drownings that we had at West Spray Lakes.”

Four of the six drowning incidents occurred at Spray Lakes Reservoir. On July 10, three people drowned after their boat capsized in the water, and on Aug. 7, a Calgary man drowned trying to save a dog that had gone underwater.

The other two fatalities occurred at Kananaskis River near Seebe Dam and at Lake Magog in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park in B.C., according to AEP.

It is not known in every instance whether the drowning victims were wearing lifejackets, but Jonathan Kusyanto, acting executive director for the Lifesaving Society Alberta and Northwest Territories Branch, said that should always be the first priority when getting in any body of water whether to swim or get on a watercraft.

The Lifesaving Society also has a ‘Swim to Survive’ standard which means swimmers should be able to fall unexpectedly into water, stay afloat there for one minute, then swim 50 metres to safety. It does not replace swimming lessons but teaches the necessary skills to survive a disorienting fall into deep water.

“In a variety of scenarios, knowing how to do that and wearing a lifejacket, will save your life,” said Kusyanto.

The communications department for Alberta Parks declined multiple attempts by the Outlook to interview a member of the KCPS team. No reason was provided.

In a statement to the Outlook, AEP assistant communications director Heather Kaszuba said the province is exploring ways to enhance water safety information sharing in K-Country in observation of the unsettling trend this year.

While it has not been made official, the idea of a water safety task force has been brought to the table. The team would serve to inform visitors of safety tips and water hazards. Kaszuba declined to speak on the water safety task force.

Such hazards in K-Country can include cold water, rapidly changing and extreme weather, and fast-moving currents in both lakes and rivers. Dangers also lie beneath the surface of various water bodies in the form of rocks and deadfall, as well as sudden drop-offs or changes in water depths.

Kaszuba said many of the public safety issues and challenges in Kananaskis Country are related to a lack of preparation and awareness. “Visitors, especially those who are unfamiliar with mountainous environments, should do research and ensure they are adequately prepared prior to exploring the region,” she said.

The KCPS team responded to a total of 281 calls between Jan. 1 and Oct. 15 of this year, down from 402 in the same period in 2021.

Mucha said this was a welcome reprieve after two years of safety teams going full throttle as visitation reached record heights in 2020 and into 2021, and is likely due to the number of visitors being down so far this year.

The latter half of the summer, Mucha noted, was busier with warmer temperatures attracting more visitors to the region.

“This actually brought a lot of relief to staff,” she said. “Except for during some of those peak visitation times, it actually felt a little more manageable this year.”

According to AEP, the most common call year after year is for lost, missing or overdue parties and the subsequent responses can range from less than an hour to multi-day searches.

Some response calls have come from visitors being led astray by crowd-sourced trail apps such as AllTrails, prompting Alberta Parks to take to social media to warn K-Country users of relying solely on the app for trail information.

The second most common call is for minor injuries, which tend to occur during a wide range of activities like hiking, scrambling and mountain biking.

Serious trauma calls are also common and typically involve climbers, scramblers, equestrians and off-highway vehicle riders.

On Sept. 4, KCPS responded to a report of a 74-year-old Canmore man who fell 100 metres while scrambling a challenge 5.6-km out-and-back route on the Big Sister in Canmore. Despite the efforts of first responders, the scrambler succumbed to his injuries while being transferred to Emergency Medical Services.

A KCPS team was also called to Big Sister the day before to rescue a scrambler who had gone off-route and cliffed out, unable to find a safe way up or down.

Public safety specialists have responded to six other falls throughout the year, in addition to two medical emergencies.

Covering some of the same incidents, but within a smaller jurisdiction, KID-operated Kananaskis Emergency Services (KES) has seen an influx in calls this year despite lower visitation in K-Country. There were 170 calls from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, up from 109 in the same period in 2021.

Calls to KES included response to fires, rescues, medical emergencies and others, with visitors making up for 82 per cent of the calls between July 1 to Aug. 31.

The number of fire and medical events in 2022, so far, is nearly double last year’s.

Gary Robertson, Kananaskis chief of emergency services, said they are investigating the data to determine why emergency events may be up, while visitation is down.

“It is a bit of an anomaly that our calls are up,” he said. “But it’s something that we’re gonna look at a little bit more just to see if we can pinpoint exactly what the cause to that would be in comparison to visitor numbers and why so much this year.”

Emergency services crews have worked hard to build a response system that works in a seasonal, resort-type community such as KID, serving residents, businesses and visitors.

Now that summer has run its course, KES is able to shift more of its focus back to residents and businesses. This month, they extended Fire Prevention Week from Oct. 9 to Oct. 15 to last the entirety of the month, talking to residents about home escape plans and checking the batteries in their smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.

The same lessons can be applied to visitors or residents staying in RVs at any time of the year, Robertson added.

“Through the winter we can slow down a bit and look at fire inspections, safety codes and things like that just to ensure that visitors, residents and staff continue to be safe throughout Kananaskis year-round.”

Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook