Kayakers criticized in wake of Alexandra Falls accident

Extreme athletes say education and training will be far more important in stopping accidents than government oversight.

N.W.T. gov’t doesn't condone waterfall running, but extreme athletes question effectiveness of regulation

The nose of a kayak peaks over Alexandra Falls. (Submitted by Alec Voorhees)

Of the five kayakers who went over Alexandra Falls, near Hay River, N.W.T., on Aug. 14, only three made it over without injury.

Although two of his fellow paddlers suffered from a concussion and a broken leg, 21-year-old Alec Voorhees said the incident "wasn't too big of a deal."

"We're all super trained and really safe on the water and know exactly what to do if that happens," he said. "We're very self-sufficient in terms of safety."

While Voorhees is confident in his abilities, the rescue effort prompted a swift response from the territorial government and authorities.

Drew Williams, with the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, said there is risk to running waterfalls, no matter how trained a person is.

"The bottom line is that we don't condone the activity of paddling over the falls," he said. "People are getting hurt and there's a significant risk that it could be worse than that."

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)

While Willliams said the department has begun looking into what might deter people from running waterfalls in the future, "there isn't anything going on specifically in terms of forming a position on extreme sports generally."

RCMP Staff Sgt. Bruce McGregor echoed Williams' sentiment about the risk of running waterfalls.

"[This] would be my suggestion: to not engage in that activity in the Northwest Territories if at all possible, because lives are essentially put at risk," he said.

How does someone get rescued?

If somebody is hurt or lost in the Northwest Territories, the question of who comes to the rescue depends on a few different factors.

According to McGregor, the RCMP will organize a "public search" if a person isn't in a national park, was not involved in a plane crash, and either their location or condition is unclear.

The RMCP has an operational budget to perform these searches. Nevertheless, McGregor said they can become costly, as they can last several days and may require the RCMP to charter a helicopter or fixed-wing plane to help with the rescue efforts.

Extreme athlete Adam Campbell was rescued by helicopter when he fell 200 feet from a mountain in B.C. two years ago. (Submitted by Adam Campbell)

Many extreme athletes carry satellite beacons these days, allowing them to communicate with authorities if something does go wrong.

In cases where the injury is known and there's a clear location — like Alexandra Falls —  a "remote medical extraction" may take place.

While the health department is responsible for leading and organizing them, it's the patient who foots the bill.

A department document on the practice estimates the cost of an extraction could be "several thousand dollars."

'The cost of inactivity is massive'

Though the biggest tourism draw to the N.W.T. is the aurora, outdoor adventure and leisure travel have also increased in popularity in recent years.

"There's much more backcountry travel happening," said Adam Campbell, an elite-level ultra-marathoner who fell 200 feet off a mountain in B.C. in 2016.

He said some of the interest is driven by social media, which showcases remote and amazing locations.

"Because there are so many more people going out who may not have the proper kind of mentorship and long-term development, there's probably more accidents happening as well," he said.

Will Gadd, a professional outdoor sports athlete who has climbed icebergs across the North, said trying to regulate outdoor activities is difficult.

"If you're riding your snowmobile, are you competent to ride it through a field, or are you competent to huck your carcass over, like, a road jump gap?" he asked. "There's no way a government organization is going to be able to make qualified judgments."

Ultimately, Gadd said any rescue operation is money well spent.

"Our medical insurance in Canada covers things like smoking, and the costs from that are dramatically higher than somebody breaking their leg kayaking — and tremendously expensive for many years," he said.

"Overall, there are greater dangers in not doing sport and having activity in your life than the relatively small cost of rescues and so on. The cost of inactivity is massive."


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