British Columbia

'Daredevil brain' leads to heartbreaking, preventable tragedies

Four years ago, Lukas Whibley, 17, ran back in the house to grab his wallet and yelled to his mom before heading off to Little Qualicum River, where he climbed a rock face and fell to his death.

‘It’s a split second of your life. Is this really how you want to spend your last few moments?’

Lukas Whibley ready for prom at graduation in 2013 in Parksville B.C., a few months before his death described by friends as kind-hearted and fun. (Lukas Whibley/Facebook)

Four years ago, Lukas Whibley, 17, ran back in the house to grab his wallet and yelled to his mom before heading off to Little Qualicum River, where he climbed a rock face and fell to his death.

"Sure it's fun, but think before you jump. It's a split second of your life. Is this really how you want to spend your last few moments?" said Lukas's mother Sally Whibley, who has never returned to the river, especially now with the rushing spring waters' haunting roar.

As the weather warms and swimming holes open in British Columbia, the daredevils appear. Tragically every year, a few young men die in preventable accidents — in everything from sports to driving, lured by adrenaline and peers.

Colson Schneider, left, Kendal Wuerch, centre, and Lukas Whibley in a fun moment during graduation from Ballenas Secondary School. Whibley played football, lacrosse, basketball and volleyball. (Lukas Whibley/Facebook)

More males take and underestimate risks, and many are surprised at how frigid B.C. waters are even into late summer, says Sienna Joyce, who does outreach for the Lifesaving Society of B.C.

"We don't want to scare people, but it's also a reality and it's important for them to know the risk" she said.

The brain wiring of young males makes them more prone to taking risks and ignoring warnings, fines and statistics, experts suggest.

That may even include the heartbreaking memorials, like the stand of lacrosse sticks left at Little Qualicum Falls for Lukas by his friends.

Water-related deaths

So far across the province in 2017, there have been 16 water-related deaths, 14 involved males.

On average, males make up about 80 per cent of the drownings every year across Canada. B.C.'s stunning gorges claim a few lives every year.

Last weekend dozens of jumpers braved Lynn Canyon's frigid water, despite the death of Cole Marsh, 17, who jumped from a cliff near the same spot last year.

Cole Marsh, 17, a lacrosse player and 'adrenaline junkie' was set to graduate from Terry Fox Secondary but died after cliff-jumping at North Vancouver's Lynn Canyon. (Maureen Marsh/Facebook)

For the past decade 20 to 34 year old males are at highest risk of death doing a water-related activity, according to the 2016 Canadian Drowning Report.

But rivers and lakes aren't the only danger zones, with B.C. reporting the highest overdose rate in provincial history this April.

A similar spike in male fatalities — from fast driving or drug taking — is seen every year, according to Statistics Canada.

Over the past decade, only a small number — about seven per cent — of all Canadians under 65 who died annually were aged 12 to 29, but the majority of those young deaths — 72 per cent — involved males, accidents and poisonings.

'Daredevil brain'

So why do youth take more risks? Teens just don't think like adults, experts say. Blame their brazen growing brains — and the interplay of peers and testosterone.

Dr. Amir Levine, a neuroscientist who studies adolescent psychiatry at Columbia University, says young people's grey matter is not mapped out yet and remains wide open to new experiences and learning.

As we age, neural pathways become more efficient, and more hard-wired — small roads give way to major highways.

Young people, however, have "daredevil brains," willing to take risks and walk new paths.

"But there is a price to be paid for that adventurousness. Some people do not survive it," said Levine.

Little Qualicum Falls is a stunning natural water feature near Parksville that's claimed lives over the years, despite warning signs and fences, and now prohibitions, from jumping off the cliffs. (Fresh Air Photography/Janis Morrison)

 Young brains are also more prone to peer influence.

"Teens driving together at this stage is more dangerous than drunk driving," he said. "The silliest ideas, the craziest ideas all of sudden seem like good ideas."

Combining a bad idea with the male sex hormone, testosterone, can lead to real trouble. Friends egging a friend to jump from a higher height becomes very persuasive.

The raging spring waters at Little Qualicum Falls near Parksville, B.C., on May 22, 2017. (Graham Perry Douglas Powell/Facebook)

Lukas Whibley's mother hopes young men think about the people they love before leaping because parents get "swallowed up" with grief when a child dies.

She said Lukas had a favourite hat, always laying around the house, with a logo that said: "YOLO."

She didn't know what that meant, learning later it was an acronym for "You Only Live Once."

She wears it sometimes.

"He had a fun life, and there were over 600 people at his service," she said. "He was a great kid. I wish I'd got to know him better — as an adult."

Little Qualicum Falls is a favourite hiking area, with breathtaking drops into violent waters at some times of the year. (Graham Perry Douglas Powell/Facebook)

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