After 3 drownings, Yukon River in Whitehorse still a danger

One of the most popular places for a riverside stroll in Whitehorse has a fatal history, but there are still many people who don’t know the area near the intake section of the Yukon River is extremely dangerous.
In the last decade, three people have drowned in a part of the Yukon River in Whitehorse known as the intake. One paddler who lives in the area says removing an old city intake pipe from the area could make a difference. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)
  • This is Part 1 in a series that looks at a deadly section of the Yukon River and what might be done to prevent more deaths.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Karen Rhebergen and her daughter, Maria Vasser, pulled up on their bikes and sat down for a picnic on the Riverdale side of the Yukon River, at a section known as the intake.

Well aware of the area’s fatal history, the pair had come to the river specifically to talk about safety around the water.

“I think if we live right here we need to make sure our kids know about the dangers and not to take it lightly,” Rhebergen says.  

In the last 10 years, three people have died in the turbulent waters of this section of the river.

Last year, 19-year-old Nicolas Close-Silverfox drowned when he waded in to save his dog.

The coroner’s report following that death was blunt. Though alcohol was found to be a factor, the coroner wrote that "there is a real and demonstrated danger of drowning due to strong currents and undertow in this area.”

In 2007, Benjie Correos and his family were in the area when his seven-year-old son fell in the water. Correos jumped in to try and save him, and some bystanders also came to help, but in the end, the boy survived but his father didn't.

And in 2004, 23-year-old woman Paula Riehl died when she fell off her inner tube into turbulent water.

Graham Wilson is a paddler who knows the area well.

“It's really fast moving, it's really turbulent and it's deceiving. People don't realize just how dangerous that area can be."

Wilson says after three drownings here, a few warning signs are not enough.

“If you go in probably past your knees, you will very quickly be knocked down. And once you are knocked over the chances of you re-circulating a bunch of times in there are really high.”

Wilson is also the author of a paddling guide to the Yukon.

He says one of the reasons the area is so dangerous is the old intake pipe under the water.  

‘Take the entire mess out’

The intake pipe has been in the water since the 1950s.

About 10 years ago, a clean-up effort was made to remove some waste at the site and put in some boulders for paddlers to play in.

Some paddlers love to play in the waters, but Wilson says, without proper gear, it’s not safe.

“The current is really fast and this obstacle creates a condition which is just really dangerous,” he says.

And he had a solution. 

“I'd like to see this entire mess taken out of here. I'd like to see the Yukon river flowing free right here, it doesn't serve a purpose through here any more, it's of no benefit, it's creating a condition which is really dangerous and I'd like to see it just taken out.”

Wilson also points out that there is more danger with more people in the area, such as the new single parents housing complex, which increases the possibility for tragedy.

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