Calgary

Campground co-owner says it's her cliff but she can't stop jumpers, drownings

On any hot summer weekend, the road that leads to Nature's Hideaway on the Highwood River can be lined with more than 50 vehicles, says the campground's co-owner, who is fed up with trying to keep trespassers off a cliff-jumping spot where three people have drowned in recent years.

She's tried for years to stop trespassers from accessing spot at Nature’s Hideaway

A popular cliff jumping spot northeast of Okotoks is the scene of three drownings since 2005. The land is owned by Nature's Hideaway Family Campground. (Submitted)

On any hot summer weekend, the road that leads to Nature's Hideaway campground on the Highwood River southeast of Calgary can be lined with more than 50 vehicles, says co-owner Stacey Thachuk.

People flock to the popular swimming hole and cliff-jumping spot, where three people have drowned since the site was purchased in 2005, Thachuk says.

The most recent incident happened just over a week ago. Search and rescue crews continue to look for the body of 22-year-old Lual Ayach, who disappeared after jumping off the cliff into the Highwood River on June 30. Ayach wasn't wearing a life-jacket and his family says he was not a strong swimmer.

Thachuk says that, as a mother, she was heartbroken to learn of this most recent drowning. 

And she knows some are looking to lay blame, since more than one person has drowned at the same location.

The cliff is within her property line, but before people point fingers at Thachuk, she says none of the victims were campers.

Plus, she says she's tried for years, unsuccessfully, to keep people off what locals call "the Rock."

"If I had any control, or any way to prevent the danger [in] this whole scenario, I absolutely would," said Thachuk. 

Campground co-owner Stacey Thachuk says she's tried for years, unsuccessfully, to keep trespassers off the cliff she owns. She is now looking for help to restrict access. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Thachuk says she's hired security, put up "no trespassing" signs and posters warning people to keep away because of the potential dangers, called RCMP for help, and walked around with a yellow construction vest taking licence plate numbers — only to have the signs torn down and crowds of young people return the following weekend.

So she says it's time for more drastic measures, such as putting up a gate to limit access along the road, or a chain-link fence with razor wire on top to keep trespassers away. 

And she says it's time to figure out exactly who is responsible for controlling these crowds.

"It's time to research which strip of land belongs to who, and I know we would contribute. I've spoken with some neighbours. I know they would contribute. I'm sure we could come up with a solution."

Cliff access 

Thachuk says she always notifies campers when the river is high or fast moving, and she never encourages anyone to jump off the rock. Rather, she says she has a private beach for visitors to the campground.

But she says when she confronts the crowds of young people partying on the banks of the river beside the campground, she gets an earful.

"And what the masses of trespassers say is that the river bank is Crown land and that they have every right to be there," said Thachuk.

That's true. The river and its banks are owned by the province.

But Thachuk owns the cliff. 

People line up to swim in the Highwood and jump off the cliff just minutes after search-and-rescue crews stopped looking for Ayach on Canada Day. (Submitted)

And according to Foothills County, the road leading to the cliff is private, but it's publicly maintained and accessible. Meaning someone may own the road, but they don't have control over who uses it.

"It goes in a big circle, right?

"It's the landowner, it's the M.D. [municipal district], phone the RCMP for help, the RCMP contact the M.D., the M.D. says it's the landowner — it just goes back and forth. Nothing's really happened or worked," said Thachuk.

Family request

The Ayach family has been back several times to the site where the 22-year-old from Calgary drowned.

Most recently, his mother, aunt and family friend brought flowers and a stuffed toy animal.

"He was planning to have a dog so we just thought we could bring a teddy bear, and we're hoping for him to know that we love him deeply and we want to come to the end of it.

The family of Lual Ayach, 22, who drowned after jumping off a cliff into the Highwood River, visit the site often hoping searchers find his body. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

"So every night we pray to get his body so we can rest," said his aunt, Sarah Ayach.

They say RCMP keep them updated daily on the search efforts.

RCMP say search-and-rescue crews have used a helicopter, boat patrols with sonar equipment, dive teams and a cadaver dog but still have not been able to find the young man's body. 

"The river itself causes some problem and that would be how high the river is right now," said Cpl. Laurel Scott.

Now the family hopes his death will lead to better warning signs or some type of restricted access.

"This is a dangerous zone, but there's nothing, so people think is just a regular place," added his aunt.

Lual's mother took a few moments to share her thoughts, too, between tears.

"We don't want someone to die. My son is gone, he's never coming back again. But I need the city to do something here, I don't want any kid to die." 

Next steps

Thachuk says whether it's a fence or some type of gate restricting access to this part of the river, she says she'd like to work with Foothills County and the province to see whether they can share the cost and whether that's even allowed. 

A spokeswoman for the county says she's not sure they can restrict public access to the road or the river.

But she says the county would be willing to consider working with the campground and the other landowners in the area to create better signage, warning of the potential dangers. 

"We are very sorry for the family that's undergone this but it would be our desire to work with the landowner and make sure that whatever can be done to limit access onto Nature's Hideaway property, where the cliff is, would be required. But we can't stop people from driving down that road," said Heather Hemingway, director of planning for Foothills County.

Thachuk says she would welcome the help because she says she's tired of trying to deter people on her own. 

"I've had rocks thrown at my trucks. People have complained about beer bottles being thrown by people off the rock at people who are rafting by. There have been fights, dogs run over on the road because of all the dust and the activity. Like, it gets really out of hand."

But she, too, hopes this most recent drowning will help spawn better control of the area.

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