Treading the line between danger and fun

Normally people aren't encouraged to leap headlong into the Yukon River. With regular drownings and near-drownings every year, the river is a known killer.

Normally people aren’t encouraged to leap headlong into the Yukon River.

With regular drownings and near-drownings every year, the river is a known killer.

However, last week I found myself standing on the riverbank shivering from the cold and preparing to jump.

Eight people stood beside me eying up the roiling, frothy water pouring out of Yukon Energy’s Whitehorse Rapids Dam. We lined up, clad in dry suits and looking like penguins,

to peer into the turbulent waters.

Our group was about 50 metres downstream from the dam, but we may as well have been looking down into a stormy, ocean swell.

“This looks like the water off the coast of Newfoundland where I grew up,” said one of the jumpers. “Out there, this kind of water is death.”

Great, I thought, staring at the 20-kilometre-an-hour crush of water that promised to smash me into the menacingly sharp rocks alongside the riverbank.

I braced myself and leapt.

Midair, I started thinking of people who had been swept off by the river, some lucky, others not.

“So many people drown in the Yukon River that I can think of,” said Whitehorse paramedic Jason Basnett.

Basnett wants to change that.

A lack of awareness about river safety led Basnett to organize a course for emergency responders in Whitehorse.

Which is why I agreed to join some of them for a day-long river awareness course.

There are three paramedics, two bicycle bylaw officers another reporter and two river guides from Tatshenshini Expediting.

We spent the first part of the day learning how to toss a throw bag – a nylon bag containing about six metres of coiled rope – to somebody in the river.

There were five swimmers in helmets and life jackets sweeping downriver, ready to grab the lifelines we were about to toss them.

But throwing the bag is harder than it looks.

See, people in frothy, cold, roiling water move … fast. And I failed to account for this when I wound up and made my first toss. The throw rope went exactly where I wanted it to, and where the person had been – seconds before. Unfortunately (for her) she was about two metres downstream, and moving fast.

I’d missed. And that person was gonzo.

Luckily, I had a second chance. The next “victim” was floating downriver – about three metres offshore.

I quickly hauled in the rope and lined up my throw.

But the rope became tangled, and the clump of line fell about two metres short of the target.

Another fail.

And I wasn’t the only one.

There were five of us trying to save the swimmers.

And by now, yellows ropes were crisscrossing over one another like spaghetti strands.

Of the first five targets, only one swimmer had been rescued.

If it weren’t for the life jackets, dry suits and helmets, the other swimmers would have been pulled far downstream by the strong current, probably to their doom.

The biggest risk for people who fall in the river are “sweepers,” said river guide Jeff Cousins, describing hazards like branches and trees that have fallen into the water.

“People often swim towards a tree thinking it’s safe and that they can grab onto it,” he said. “The truth is you want to swim far away from it.”

Water funnels around a floating tree and people can get tangled in the branches and pinned, the swift current sucking you under.

Rockpiles and eddy pools are another risk.

If you get your foot stuck in a cache of rocks the water piles up behind you and pushes your face into the water, said Cousins. If you’re deep enough, you can drown.

In fact, one of the people in the course got caught on a pile of rocks while swimming downstream. The pressure of the water was so strong she couldn’t move her foot. It took two people to free her.

Eddies and whirlpools are also a concern.

Paddlers going over top of whirlpools can often flip their boats when they hit these bubbling, swirling streams of water, said Cousins.

Knowing how to paddle or swim out of these watery funnels is key. So is wearing a life jacket.

After learning how to toss a throw bag we’re taught how to swim in and out of strong eddies and how to avoid large rocks.

Then it was time to launch ourselves into the turbulent water near the dam.

Even with a balloon-like life jacket strapped around my body, a helmet fastened to my head and armed with river safety tips, I was terrified standing on the ledge over the water.

“Just make sure you leap far enough into the water so you avoid the rocks on the right,” said Cousins.

I didn’t.

Plunging into the frigid water, I was sucked beneath the surface, my helmet was pushed forward over my face and I rocketed downstream.

At one point in the tumult, I caught a glimpse of the river guide’s face. His eyes were bugged out – never a good sign.

In between the spray of water crashing into my eyes I caught sight of the rocks I was racing towards. I instinctively moved my upper body left and narrowly avoided crashing into them.

Instead, I barreled into a huge, lapping wave. I tried to gulp some air just as the wave crashed over on me – exactly what you’re not supposed to do – and swallowed a ton of water. Before I got my bearings, another wave slapped my face. I tried to keep my head up as I was carried through the sloshing assault of water.

A few seconds later, having passed through the most turbulent section of the river, I finally caught my breath and found myself among the others, who had pulled themselves up onshore.

“That was crazy,” said one of the girls.

Dazed, I nodded in agreement and then prepared to do it again.

We made two more trips down the river.

They were more relaxed and we floated almost all the way to the Riverdale bridge, swimming through eddies and whirlpools.

After learning how to avoid dangerous parts of the river and how to pull ourselves out of circling whirlpools you could almost say it was fun.

Really fun.

Contact Vivian Belik at