Alberta community mourns missing canoeists

RCMP have called off a search for two missing canoeists in northeast Alberta, leaving the town of Lac La Biche mourning for much-beloved doctor and a semi-retired businessman.

RCMP call off search for pair of Lac La Biche outdoorsmen

RCMP have called off a search for two missing canoeists in northeast Alberta, leaving the town of Lac La Biche mourning a much-beloved doctor and a semi-retired businessman.

Dr. Gordon Lippolt is one of two canoeists missing on the Christina River in northern Alberta. (Provided)

Dr. Gordon Lippolt, 66, and Paul Richard, 58, went missing last Wednesday as they paddled the Christina River to Fort McMurray with two fellow canoeists.

"Paul and Gord were very good friends ... the kind of people that make a community tick," said friend Gary Rogers.

The four long-time friends put into a relatively quiet Christina River near Conklin on June 8th and were going to take their time paddling to Fort McMurray, Rogers said. 

The men were enjoying the run for the first two days, but on the third the water began rising with the runoff from all the rain in the area, he said.

"They didn't have much choice, but to continue," he said.

Six days later, searchers noted the launch site was submerged by more than two metres of water. 

"It's normally a river that you can take your children on," Rogers said. "It's just the river rose so much that, you know, there was just rapids everywhere."

Disaster struck

The men were just five hours from their destination when disaster struck. The canoeists hit deep water they didn't expect, he said.

"One of the boats ... stopped a moment to let (Lippolt and Richard) pass and they went up ahead ... around a bend and that's the last they ever saw of them."

The second pair of canoeists had no idea anything had happened and followed.

"They said it caught you off guard and swamped you and down goes the boat," Rogers said.

"They were in the water for five to 10 minutes in these rapids. They were utterly exhausted."

Somehow the pair got caught in a current that dragged them near a rising cutoff from the shoreline by the rapidly growing river.

The survivors were rescued hours later by helicopter as the canoeists had been reported overdue that morning.

The men were all avid outdoorsmen and experienced paddlers, Rogers said.

"According to  the police it was a little bit of a freak thing of nature where the river just rose so fast. "

Rogers said he understand that the incident happened where two rivers meet and paddlers can expect a short stretch of rapids.

"Instead ... there's miles of rapids — so fast flowing, it's one of those perfect storm scenarios."

None of the men were wearing life jackets though one of the survivors managed to slip his on before falling into the water, he said.

Pillars of the community

Roger described Lippolt as a private person, but a dedicated doctor and a pillar of the community, involved in sports and other events.

Both missing canoeists have deep roots in the community with Lippolt working for more than 30 years as a doctor and Richard born and raised in the Lac La Biche area. 

Lippolt had boundless energy and still worked on-call for the emergency department, said Dr. J.P. Mare, who worked with Lippolt for 12 years.

"We just have no idea how you get out of bed at two o'clock, three o'clock and four o'clock, keeping a straight face," he said. "He was amazing that way."

Police, military, and civilian searchers hunted for the missing men for more than a week before calling off the search Wednesday.

But, "everyone’s still hoping for a miracle," Rogers said. 

With files from CBC's Niall McKenna