Sitting in their boat under the Stewart Crossing bridge on Monday evening, Cpl. Dave Wallace and Cpl. Cam Lockwood munched cookies and sipped coffee from plastic travel mugs.
Both Yukon RCMP were wearing survival coats and inflatable life preservers.
Neither officer was wearing a duty belt.
The belts, which hold a firearm, a baton and handcuffs, weigh more than 20 pounds.
The belts are on board, said the officers.
Whether they wear them depends on the situation, said Lockwood.
The officers were seven days into the search for Const. Michael Potvin, who disappeared in the Stewart River on July 13th after the boat he and another officer were in capsized in Mayo.
When Potvin was dumped into the frigid water, he was wearing soft body armour, a firearm, handcuffs, a baton and his duty belt.
He wasn’t wearing a life jacket.
RCMP officers are “required to wear the general duty belt at all times, and that includes when you’re operating a watercraft,” said RCMP Sgt. Don Rogers during a media briefing last week.
When asked if this policy had changed over the past week, acting RCMP communications officer Cpl. Dwayne Latham referred the News back to Rogers’ previous comments.
Monday, Lockwood and Wallace started their day at the McQuesten airstrip, about 50 kilometres downriver.
The officers have been patrolling the shoreline, checking “high probability areas,” said Wallace, mentioning back channels and sloughs.
It was 7 p.m. when they took their coffee break at the bridge, and their day was only half over.
The two RCMP had another 50 kilometres to go, before reaching Mayo.
The search is “massive,” said Wallace.
“And there’s so many variables.”
Standing in the Mayo gazebo earlier that afternoon, a First Nation man stared across the Stewart River.
He was standing in this same spot when Potvin and his partner ran into trouble last Tuesday, he said. (The man, we’ll call him Joe, refused to give his name – as did a number of other First Nation sources in Mayo – citing a long history of clashes with the RCMP.)
The RCMP had taken their boat out on a maintenance run after it sat in winter storage.
They were up at that corner, said Joe, pointing to a tree that hung into the water on the far shore.
The motor started sputtering and the cops headed back toward the gravel landing that acts as a boat launch, about 100 metres past the gazebo.
But when they got back to this side of the river, the boat was full of water, he said.
By the time they floated past, the boat had capsized and only the bow was sticking out.
Neither officer called for help – a detail that several Mayo witnesses repeated.
Joe ran down the shore to the boat launch, but all he found was a dry-docked, overturned boat with a 70-horsepower engine.
There was no key and no paddles.
“We had to grab sticks,” said Joe, who managed to get the boat in the water with the help of two young men.
One of the men had already offered Potvin help.
“He was swimming to shore and (the young man) offered to help him,” said local Canadian Ranger Josee Tremblay.
Potvin “was almost on the edge of shore, swimming, doing good. But when (this young man) went to help him, (Potvin) said, ‘No, go help my partner,’ and this is unfortunate because his partner was actually in the safe spot – he was with the boat and in the shallow part of the river.”
Joe and the two young men managed to pole out to the officer clinging to the boat and asked if he wanted help.
“Growing up as I did, coming out of residential school, you don’t dare put a hand on a Crown uniform without asking,” said Joe.
The officer accepted, but he was more worried about his partner, said Joe.
“He kept asking where Mike was ….”
Onshore, a Mayo elder (who was too upset by the incident to talk about it in person), watched in horror as Potvin suddenly lurched backwards and disappeared in the murky river.
“She kept waiting for him to come back up,” said Tremblay.
On a good day he could easily have swum three or four times that distance, added Joe.
“It looked so easy, and the shore was so close.”
But there’s a really bad undertow there, he said.
“And he must have been wearing a good 40 pounds of dead weight.
“I don’t know why they didn’t do their maintenance run on a lake. There’s a lake five miles from here.”
The river is full of debris.
There’s old ships, open oil drums from the mine, and a tangle of logs and branches under the brown, swiftly moving river.
It was 45 minutes before rescue crews got boats in the water, said Joe.
It took time to round people up and get the boats there.
Mayo used to have a search-and-rescue crew, but several years ago it was phased out, “and that’s really unfortunate,” said Tremblay, who used to work with search and rescue in Haines Junction.
“We need a real plan for emergency preparedness, and we were not ready.
“Just a rope right there could have saved his life.”
A few hours after the incident, local wildland fire area protection manager Dave Trudeau got a call. His crew is in the process of moving toward full risk-management training, but for now, it’s trained to deal only with fires and floods.
“I grabbed a few radios and handed them out at the riverbank to establish communication between the boats and the helicopter,” said Trudeau. A local pilot had his chopper in the air as soon as he heard Potvin was missing. (Over the next few days, Potvin’s father and mother would go up in helicopters looking for their son.)
When Tremblay heard the chopper, she headed for the river.
“There were lots of people already at the site, all First Nation people,” she said.
“And I kept asking, where are the Rangers – where is my crew?”
Later, Tremblay learned the Rangers were not involved in the search.
“The RCMP said they don’t want us on the boat, or searching,” she said.
“But the Rangers could have helped. So I still went to search on behalf of myself and the Rangers.”
Tremblay grabbed waders and started walking the shore.
“I really wanted to go downstream,” she said.
“I kept thinking it was a waste of time to stick around (this one area where he disappeared) when 100 people were already there.”
At 2:45 a.m. the search was called off for a few hours, then started up again at 5 a.m.
“The first night it was mostly volunteers searching with a few RCMP,” said Trudeau.
“And I think they were hoping for more organization after that.”
The RCMP pushed the Na-Cho Nyak Dun out, said one Mayo resident, sitting at the local chip stand.
“We should have stretched out across the river and dragged it,” he said.
The First Nations use 30-foot poles with four hooks to drag the river.
“That’s how we found a guy who drowned years ago,” he said.
“But the RCMP wouldn’t let us go out and look for him.
“And the First Nation people know the river better than anybody,” added Joe.
“We know the deep holes, we know the back eddies.”
The First Nation does know the river, said Na-Cho Nyak Dun Chief Simon Mervyn.
“But it all came down to organization,” he said.
“Too many cooks ruin the stew.”
There were already three organizations searching – the RCMP, emergency measures and search and rescue, he said.
“And they didn’t want to compromise it with boats all over the place. They had to do their grids and a proper search.”
The First Nation was there for the families, added Mervyn.
The day after Potvin disappeared, Na-Cho Nyak Dun closed its offices.
“There were only five people here, and you could tell they’d been up all night helping with the search,” said the First Nation’s executive director Anne Leckie.
“It was hard to focus – they were a lovely young couple and everybody knew them.” Potvin’s wife is seven months pregnant with her first child, she said.
The First Nation helped find accommodation for RCMP and family coming into town. And it provided a staff member who acted as a community liaison, co-ordinating support behind the scenes.
There were even people who postponed their holidays so their RVs could be used during the search, said Leckie.
“The community pulled together quickly,” said Mervyn.
And in the last few days, after talking with the RCMP, the Na-Cho Nyak Dun has decided to start harvesting fish.
“Out of respect we wanted to hold off a little bit,” he said.
“It’s late this year – they’re catching them up in Pelly – and people here are anxious to get on with their harvesting.”
And the family is open to it, said Mervyn.
“It might be of value to have the nets in – it might snag the boy, you know.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at