Underwater search volunteers help recover body of N.B. man who disappeared in 2019
Discovery solves case of Thomas Hines, who disappeared while canoeing in B.C.
Two volunteers have helped find the body of Thomas Hines, a Sackville man who was canoeing in Waugh Lake in B.C. when he disappeared in 2019.
Gene and Sandy Ralston, a couple in their 70s from Boise, Idaho, travel around North America assisting in underwater search and rescue missions.
On April 4, they found Hines.
"It's an extremely rewarding thing to do, to bring someone's loved ones home to them after everyone has given up," Gene Ralston told CBC News.
In 2019, Hines was 26. He had recently moved to Egmont, about 125 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, and was working as a kitchen assistant at the nearby West Coast Wilderness Lodge.
He was last seen on June 17. The next day, some of his belongings were discovered in a 17-foot orange canoe, and he was reported missing to the RCMP.
Officers spent more than a week searching for Hines, and Sunshine Coast Search and Rescue volunteers put in an estimated 450 hours looking for him by water, land and air.
RCMP used sonar equipment to try to locate Hines, who was suspected of drowning since he was known to enjoy swimming in Waugh Lake, but they were ultimately unsuccessful.
While the Ralstons couldn't travel to Canada before because of border restrictions and weather, they were able to drive their sonar-equipped boat up to B.C. earlier this month to help find Hines.
Sunshine Coast RCMP said in a statement that they brought the Ralstons in based on the recommendation of Mike Clement from Sub-sea Acoustic & Video Imaging Marine Service, who had been helping with the search for Hines.
"Impressed by their success in similar cases, Constable Cole Vander Helm, who had been involved in the original investigation, reached out to the Ralstons to request their help," RCMP said.
Clement was also a friend, Gene Ralston said.
The Ralstons use sonar equipment to aid in their searches, but Gene Ralston said it also comes down to experience and good information.
He and his wife knew where Hines's canoe was launched off the roadside, headed in the direction of a location on the other side of the lake, which Ralston said wasn't that far.
He and Sandy started their search close to the middle of the lake, he said, moving toward the far shore.
They found Hines within 90 minutes.
Dental records confirmed his identity, and RCMP notified his family in the Nova Scotia.
Ralston said he and Sandy once found a drowning victim in four minutes, but the sonar approach isn't magic, and there have been times when they haven't found the person they've been searching for.
"We will spend as much time as we feel it's going to take to complete the search successfully."
The Ralstons first saw the sonar equipment in action in Oregon in 1999. Gene said he spent a year convincing Sandy they should invest in the same equipment to help people who have lost loved ones to drowning.
Shortly after the pair finally bought the equipment, they found their first drowning victim in Bear Lake, Utah.
Ralston said experience is more important than the equipment, however.
"We do a lot of investigation into exactly what happened, try to recreate it in our own minds and determine where the best place to search is, before we ever started to search."
He said that, combined with sticking with a search and not giving up, is the primary reason for the couple's success over the years.
"It has grown into a much larger mission than we ever imagined. We've been to Newfoundland and Labrador; Fairbanks, Alaska; Mexico City; all over North America, searching for drowning victims," he said.