Fear of bears outweighs common sense around water: Kamloops expert

As B.C. boating and backwoods season begins, warnings and safety advice for those heading into the forests or lakes are plentiful.

In amongst all those pieces of advice, Kamloops Search and Rescue manager Alan Hobler is hopeful one message is heard that often gets ignored: people need to be more safety conscious around water. That message is often drowned out by the metaphorical roaring of bears.

"It usually falls on deaf ears," he says. "People seem to be more afraid of teeth and claws than water."

Hobler has worked for decades in B.C.'s forests, as a volunteer search and rescue expert and leader and as a professional forest ranger. In that time, he's worked on the coast and in the Interior (he's currently based in Kamloops) and has seen close to 40 drowning victims.

"I've never seen anyone killed by a cougar or bear, but I've seen dozens and dozens and dozens of people who'd drowned," he says. "And not one of them had been wearing a lifejacket."

"Every single one of them was preventable."

While he's aware of bear attacks, like the recent one in the Yukon which took the life of a young mother and her infant, the number of attacks are few, and fatalities are far fewer. Between a deep search of news stories online and a list of bear attacks compiled on Wikipedia, KamloopsMatters found only five fatal bear attacks in B.C. since 2000. Non-fatal attacks are more common.

Sounds scary, and no doubt is, but Hobler says drowning should be a bigger concern.

"A lot of people getting off houseboats and they're really afraid of bears, but none of them are wearing life jackets," he says. "Their perception of risk is hugely skewed as they're afraid of the bears."

There are a few factors that play roles in drowning deaths, Hobler says. Alcohol can definitely be one, not just because it impairs decision-making abilities, but it can also mean people tire more easily and aren't able to stay above water as long as they expect.

There's also the gasp reflex, which kicks in when you hit the water. Hobler recalls going to one incident where an experienced swimmer had fallen in the water. While Hobler thinks the man had had a beer or two, there was no evidence he was drunk. However, the man, who was a competitive swimmer, drowned after his gasp reflex kicked in. He swallowed water and sank below the surface before anyone could help him.

"It's amazing how often it plays out." 

Another factor is people thinking they'll be able to reach their boat if they fall out. Hobler recalls another recovery, where an experienced fisherman fell into the lake next to his boat, but couldn't reach the edge of his watercraft from the water. He wasn't wearing a life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD).

"There was a witness on the shore that saw him fall in," Hobler tells KamloopsMatters. "(The witness) jumped in a boat and went to rescue the person, but by the time he got to the person, he was deceased."

"Had he been wearing a life jacket, he would have been completely fine."

Unfortunately, his stamina wasn't enough to keep his head above water for the minutes needed for the witness to get to where he was.

Hobler's warnings about drownings aren't without statistics.

The Canadian Drowning Report, issued annually, states there were 56 drowning deaths in B.C. alone in 2016, the most recent year they have data for. In 2015, it was 67. The vast majority of those deaths are on natural bodies of water: lakes, rivers or the ocean. The report also notes the majority of the deceased are men. B.C. Coroners Service statistics show in the five years from 2012 to 2016, there were more than 110 drowning deaths in the Interior Health Authority.

Since the 1990s, the rate of drowning has decreased across Canada significantly, from 683 preventable drownings in 1990 to 428 in 2014, but that's still hundreds of people annually, affecting hundreds of families annually.

"I've talked to people heading out on boats not wearing PFDs and they all seem perfectly willing to take the risk," Hobler says. "But for me, I see the families afterwards; they're living the consequences of that person's decision."

Hobler says that with a life jacket or personal flotation device, even if you fall into the water unconscious, you could stay alive for hours since they're able to keep your head above water. He notes that with a life jacket holding a person's head above water, the bigger threat would be exposure, which would take hours, or longer, in the summer. It would even be possible for a river to sweep you to safety in that time, or for you to regain consciousness and swim to shore.

In light of the beginning of the boating season starting soon, volunteers and local Mounties are holding a pair of boater safety awareness events at Pioneer Park. The first one is today (June 6), followed by another one June 12. Both will run from 2 to 5 p.m. at the park's boat launch.

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