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Crews were searching near Muskrat Falls, on Labrador's Churchill River, on Wednesday for three young men reported missing on Tuesday evening. ((Google Earth))

Searchers are racing to find signs of life of three college students believed to have been swept over a 15-metre waterfall while paddling on the Churchill River in Labrador Tuesday evening.

Boats and a helicopter have been scouring an area near Muskrat Falls, approximately 30 kilometres west of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Ice and cold weather have been hampering the search.

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A helicopter searches the Churchill River near Muskrat Falls for signs of three missing boaters. ((CBC))

The three young men are students at the College of the North Atlantic campus in nearby Happy Valley-Goose Bay. One of the men had grown up in the town, while the others were from the coastal communities of Cartwright and Charlottetown.

["I'm]

totally devastated by this," said Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Leo Abbass, who has known one of the students since childhood and had taught him in junior high school.

RCMP Sgt. Guy Caines said the search, which has involved boats and a helicopter, was launched after a witness reported seeing three men "in a canoe-type boat" go over the falls.

"The witness reports that they were not wearing life-vests," Caines said.

Abbass said his understanding is that three couples went to the area, known for its hiking trails, to enjoy the pleasant weather, and came "across a canoe, or a home-made boat" near the river.

"I don't think they went up with the intent of getting in a boat or canoeing in any way, shape or form — at least, that's what I'm led to believe," Abbass told CBC News Wednesday.

"They just came across this, just larking around, to have a little bit of fun, and … underestimated, I guess, the power of the current and found themselves in a dangerous situation."

Treacherous waters

Abbass said the area is known for its views and walking trails, but that part of the Churchill River can be treacherous.

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Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Leo Abbass says the waters flowing over Muskrat Falls can be both deceptive and powerful. ((CBC))

"It can be very deceptive. It's a calm, still area … and not understanding the current, they were kind of swept out into the middle of the river and then carried over the falls."

"The power and the force of the water coming over those falls is extreme, to say the least," he said. "It's quite dangerous, even now for the searchers in the boat … they have to be extremely cautious where they manoeuvre their boats and where they place themselves."  

The incident has sparked concern across Labrador, particularly in at least two coastal communities where grief counsellors were being dispatched to help students cope with the unfolding news.

Cartwright Mayor Rosetta Holwell said the whole community was already mourning one of its residents. She said he had graduated from Henry Gordon Academy last year, and was attending school at the College of the North Atlantic campus in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Another of the young men was originally from Charlottetown, and had moved to Happy Valley-Goose Bay to study in the industrial millwright program at the college. An official at William Gillett Academy said the young man had graduated from the school last year. She said the school's tragic events response team was in place Wednesday.

Speaking with CBC News, police warned people to be cautious near swollen rivers during spring run-off and strongly advised boaters to wear a personal flotation device when they are on the water.