'A life-or-death situation': Runner saves men after canoe tips in Ottawa River

One moment, Brian Schmidt was running along the Ottawa River, training for a marathon. The next, he was in the river, saving a man's life.

Brian Schmidt was training with his wife for a marathon when canoeists lost control

Brian and Lisa Schmidt told CBC News they were training for a marathon Sunday when they suddenly had to rescue two men whose canoe had overturned in the Ottawa River. (Madeline Schmidt)

Once it was all over, Brian and Lisa Schmidt just kept on running.

The couple's Sunday afternoon training session for next month's Ottawa Race Weekend marathon was unexpectedly interrupted when they had to rescue two canoeists who'd lost control of their boat on the Ottawa River.

The Schmidts had been running for about 20 kilometres, Brian Schmidt said, when around 12 p.m. they came upon two men in distress in the waters near the Champlain Bridge.

"They were kind of going sideways. And they were paddling like crazy. It seemed like they didn't really have control of the boat," said Schmidt.

Almost immediately after Schmidt realized the two men were out of control, they struck a tree root and "dumped over and flipped the canoe," he said.

Brian Schmidt stands near the Champlain Bridge along the Ottawa River on April 24, 2017, one day after the Ottawa teacher rescued a pair of canoeists near that spot. (CBC)

A 'life-or-death' situation

The younger of the two men ended up in neck-deep water near the riverbank with the canoe. 

Schmidt said he helped him wedge the canoe between two trees and get to safety.

The older man's situation, however, was more precarious: he had grabbed onto a tree branch about six to eight metres away from the shoreline, said Schmidt, and was dangling in the water "just hanging on for dear life."

Neither of the men, he said, were wearing life jackets.

"He started screaming. He basically was saying 'I can't hold on. I'm going to die,'" Schmidt said. "And so at that point, I decided just to jump right in the water.'"

While it was a sunny Sunday afternoon and the temperature was in the double digits, plunging into the frigid Ottawa River water felt like a "punch [to] the stomach," Schmidt said.

"I knew at that point it wasn't just a regular situation," Schmidt said. "It was actually kind of a life-or-death situation."

I said, you've got one shot. You've basically got one shot to try and jump over to my arms.- Brian Schmidt

Schmidt said he got as far out into the river as he could, using another tree for support.

He said he realized he couldn't reach the man, who was about two metres away — and the water was so cold that he was losing feeling in his arms and legs.

"I wanted to go out and physically grab him. But [the river] was raging, and I was barely holding onto a tree ... I said, I'll probably have about 30 seconds to swim as hard as I can to shore, and if I don't make it, I'm down that river."

So, Schmidt said, he told the man he had no choice: he had to jump for it.

"I said, you've got one shot. You've basically got one shot to try and jump over to my arms.' And he said, 'I'm not going to do it. I'm going to die. I'm going to die,'" Schmidt said.

"And [then] he just kind of leapt forward, and I grabbed a hold of him — grabbed a hold of his jacket — and scooped him up."

Took 5 to 10 minutes

As the drama unfolded on the river, Lisa Schmidt was trying to flag down someone with a cell phone — they didn't have their own phones since they were in training mode — and call 911.

"Once he was in there for a few minutes, I started freaking out a little bit. But he came out all safe and sound," she said.

The pair guessed the entire rescue took about five to 10 minutes.

"Anywhere there's a crowd and there's something wrong, [Brian's] going to be the guy that goes in and fixes it, for sure," she said of her husband.

"Of course, it makes me proud."

The Ottawa Paramedic Service said Sunday night it didn't have a report of the afternoon rescue, but added that if the two men didn't need medical attention, paramedics might not have been called to the scene.

Once everyone was safe on the shoreline, Brian Schmidt — a teacher at Woodroffe High School — said he felt it was the right time to impart some important wisdom to the two canoeists.

The teacher in me kind of kicked in, and I said, 'We gotta learn a lesson here, guys.'- Brian Schmidt

"The teacher in me kind of kicked in, and I said 'We gotta learn a lesson here, guys. You cannot go out canoeing with your life jacket as a seat rest. You have to put them on,'" he said.

Schmidt said he gave the men a hug, and then — still freezing and shivering from his sojourn in the river — decided the best way to warm up would be to get back on the trail with his wife.

At that point, he added, he might have been in mild shock himself.

"I said, 'Guys, I'm so glad you're safe. Please don't ever do something as stupid as that again,'" Schmidt said.

"And then I said, hun, let's keep running."