This helicopter has been searching the Churchill River since Tuesday evening for signs of three missing boaters. ((CBC))

The search for three college students who were swept over a powerful waterfall on Labrador's Churchill River became a recovery mission Thursday afternoon, as officials said there was no chance of finding the young men alive.

Crews had held out hope that the three young men who got in a small boat on Tuesday evening would somehow be found alive, though by Thursday the only sign crews had located was a single sneaker.

The three men were all students at the College of the North Atlantic campus in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and had been scheduled to graduate from their program on Thursday.

The three students were from the Labrador towns of Cartwright, Charlottetown and Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and were studying in the millwright program.

The search started Tuesday evening after an eyewitness made a frantic report of seeing the three men in a "canoe-type boat" go over the falls.


The young men were last seen Tuesday near this section of the Churchill River in central Labrador. ((CBC))

Labrador MP Todd Russell, who has talked with all three families over the last three days, said it is hard not to feel the grief.

"They want to find their children and they want to bring them home," Russell told CBC News.

"You don't often sense that profound sorrow, so deep and so raw, and all you can do is just be there for them in that moment."

Dozens of people in the Happy Valley-Goose Bay area have participated in the search, some of them using their own boats on the Churchill River, where the water is ice-cold and still clogged with ice.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor Leo Abbass, who knew one of the students well, said he understood the three men had decided to get in the boat for fun, but must not have understood how powerful the currents in the Churchill River can be, nor the force of water that goes over Muskrat Falls.

Officials conceded on Thursday that the search was no longer a rescue mission, but one of recovery.

Earlier, RCMP Sgt. Guy Caines said the search was continuing in the area below where the men were last seen.

"We'll expand [the search] a little bit into some of the beaches and the treed area along the shore between the two falls and covering the area again. Where the river is changing basically every day, you know with the water levels, we are going to be going over areas we've been over already but we want to double-check everything," said Caines.