N.W.T. tourism dept. chastises kayakers who went over Alexandra Falls

Alec Voorhees, a 21-year-old whitewater kayaker from Boise, Idaho, was the first of five to take on the Northwest Territories’ third tallest waterfall last week. One other kayaker broke a leg, another suffered a concussion.

Alec Voorhees not injured in the run; 1 kayaker suffered concussion, another a broken leg

The nose of a kayak peaks over Alexandra Falls. Alec Voorhees, a 21-year-old whitewater kayaker from Boise, Idaho, was the first of five to take on the Northwest Territories’ third tallest waterfall last week. One other kayaker broke a leg, another suffered a concussion. (Submitted by Alec Voorhees)

As the nose of Alec Voorhees's kayak approached the lip of the 33.5-metre Alexandra Falls, he said time slowed down.

The 21-year-old whitewater kayaker from Boise, Idaho, was the first of five to take on the Northwest Territories' third tallest waterfall last week, one of three to come out the other side unscathed. One other kayaker broke a leg, another suffered a concussion.

"Once I went out into the current, there was no turning back," said Voorhees. "I just closed my eyes, visualized what I wanted to do … and when I got close to the lip of the falls, I just tried not to go too fast into it."

It's all in the landing, says Voorhees. It's important to enter the water at the base of the falls as vertically as possible, because the more surface area of the kayak hits the flat surface of the water, the more impact the kayaker takes.

Landing horizontally on the water is "basically like jumping on your feet onto flat ground," according to Voorhees.

He said he was inspired to take on the falls after two of his friends ran them last summer.

Alec Voorhees is one of the kayakers who went over Alexandra Falls last week. (Submitted by Alec Vorhees)

3-hour rescue

Vince McKay, a Hay River volunteer firefighter and medic, was called out to rescue the kayaker who was concussed in the fall.

He said the kayaker was "semi-conscious" and talking by the time McKay made it to the area — about one and a half hours after the initial call.

The group spent another hour and a half walking the injured kayaker to Louise Falls, where there is stair access to the park area above. McKay said it was three hours total before he was able to give the kayaker treatment in the ambulance.

Other than expressing some criticism over their preparedness, he called the kayaking group "professionals."

"I initially thought these guys are nuts," said McKay. "But having the time to talk to them when I was helping, they put perspective to me, which was kind of neat. The one guy said, 'It's no different than you going into a fire. I think you're nuts.'"

Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment spokesperson Drew Williams said the department doesn't condone kayaking over the falls and will be "reviewing the incident to consider what follow-up actions will be taken."

"This activity could have resulted in more serious injury or death," he said in an email.

"These stunts should not be celebrated or imitated. Not only do they put the lives of paddlers at risk, they can jeopardize the safety of rescue personnel and take medical resources away from others who genuinely need them." 

A history of running Alexandra Falls

Alexandra Falls, which is located in Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park outside Hay River, are well-known in the kayaking world, according to Voorhees. He says they're popular because the edge of the falls flow nicely into the water below, allowing for a vertical drop.

There were some injuries, including a broken leg and concussion, after kayakers went over Alexandra Falls near Hay River, N.W.T., last week. (Submitted by Kalob Grady)

Professional kayaker Ed Lucero was the first to take on Alexandra Falls in 2003. He would have set a world record for surviving the tallest waterfall run, if not for the fact he came out of his kayak at the end. Tyler Bradt ended up setting that record in 2007, but ended up obliterating it with a run down the 56.6-metre Palouse Falls in Washington State two years later.

Voorhees says kayakers get a bad rap for being reckless daredevils, and calls that criticism unfair. He says he is a trained professional who knows the risks and prepares for them, which is no different than big-wave surfing or daredevil skiing.

"People make a first judgment without knowing the background, it can be frustrating," said Voorhees. "I don't go around telling them they are doing their job wrong, that wouldn't make any sense."

With files from Kirsten Murphy