Could the Yukon River in Whitehorse be made safer?

This week, CBC Yukon is investigating a fatal section of the Yukon River in Whitehorse. Today: what’s made the intake area so dangerous? And is possible to find a fix?
A paddler navigates the Yukon River in Whitehorse. Many people in Whitehorse agree that a fatal section of the Yukon River has become more dangerous over the years, but there’s little agreement on why, or what should be done about it. (CBC)

Many people in Whitehorse agree that a fatal section of the Yukon River has become more dangerous over the years, but there’s little agreement on why, or what should be done about it.

Cord Hamilton: 'We know the conditions have changed.' (CBC)
Over the past decade, three people have drowned in the water along the Millennium Trail in Whitehorse.

“We know the conditions have changed,” says Cord Hamilton, an engineer who’s taken a personal interest in the river. “Certainly that's the impression I have from my own observations and talking to other people and we also know that we've had these deaths. So it's something we really should look into: why is this happening? What is happening here? And is it  an acceptable hazard the way it sits right now?”

Paddler and author Graham Wilson has suggested the city’s old intake pipe and the current rock structure — added to make a water park for paddlers — are contributing to the deadly flows, but not everyone agrees with that theory.

Bob Daffe is more worried about eddies upstream. (CBC)
Bob Daffe is a paddling instructor who teaches water safety in the area.

He says the area is deadly, but he’s more worried about eddies upstream that have been made bigger and more dangerous by shore erosion,

“For safety reasons, I think that would be the best thing to fix,” he says. “Maybe to bring the shore back to where it was. We all know it was safer before.”

'A phenomenal area for teaching people about water safety'

John Quinsey, president of the Yukon Canoe and Kayak Club, says erosion along shore jumped following a big ice jam in 2004 that lead the current to change.

John Quinsey says making changes to the river will cause changes elsewhere. (CBC)
He’s not necessarily opposed to taking out the intake, but says the river is inherently dangerous, and attempts to make changes could create new hazards down river.

“You take that out, it would change the current yes, but now you have a problem downstream, the banks already eroding downstream.”

Still others says there's no problem at all — all rivers pose dangers and knowing how to behave on or near moving water is key.

“This area is a phenomenal area for teaching people about water safety and how to use the river,” says paddling instructor Trevor Braun. “It's just a great, great place and a great resource that we're lucky to have in Whitehorse.”

Trevor Braun suggests a PFD station near the riverbank. (CBC)
But Braun says more could be done to prevent people from drowning.

One man who drowned in the river was attempting to rescue his son, another his dog. 

Braun suggests stations on the riverbank with life-jackets or rescue throw bag so that people could safely assist in an emergency. He says he would never attempt a rescue without a life-jacket. 

But Hamilton, the engineer, says what's needed is a comprehensive study of the hydrology of the area.

“My concern is that there seems to be a public safety hazard here and I don't think we've addressed it properly and I really want to make sure that we do so, so we don't see another tragic death here.”


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