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Tragedy on the Cheakamus

At the best of times, wading fast-flowing streams is a risky undertaking and one that can turn deadly in the flash of an eye. We’ve all waded into heavy flows up to our elbows to free our lines from around a mid-river snag, taken just one more drop off the downstream tail of a sandbar with the current washing the sand out from under our boots and, though I’m not a church-going soul, I’ve more than once thanked the stars above for the belt cinched tight waist-high around my chest waders.

Every now and then, unfortunately, our lucky streak kicks in just a moment too late and the fears that gnaw at us every time we step beyond our comfort zone become real.

From the head of the dam at the south end of Daisy Lake—about 20 kilometres south of Whistler, BC—the Cheakamus River drops almost 350 metres in elevation by the time it reaches its confluence with the Sqaumish River near Brakendale, another 20 kilometres farther south. For some of that stretch, the Cheakamus is relatively tame, in other parts it pounds between canyon walls in an intimidating display of raw power. Through the first part of summer, snowmelt in the surrounding high Coastal Mountains turns the river into a raging torrent, but outside the seasonal spate, it’s a wonderful stream home to chunky resident rainbows and bull trout in the upper waters and, in the lower waters, coho salmon and bullet steelies stack up in the runs.

This year, a higher than normal snow pack up in the high country of the Coastal Mountains is just starting to melt under a hot August sun and rivers in general are a higher than they should be for this time of year.  Though high water wasn’t a problem in the relatively manageable current downstream from the dam where a young Vancouver couple was fly fishing last Saturday. It was late afternoon and the young lady had just set the hook on a rainbow, when she lost her footing. Her companion rushed in to help her and the two were quickly caught up in the flow. Roughly an hour later, he was found floating face down. She still has not been found, possibly wedged against a ledge or caught on a submerged snag to be given up only when the Cheakamus’ current is good and ready.

What started out as a wonderful day on the water with the prospect of tying into some strong fish in th matter of moments turned into a sad and terrible tragedy, the kind that’s always at the back of our mind when we wade flowing water. The part that puzzles me is that the couple were accompanied by one of a number of professional fishing guides operating on the Cheakamus.  It seems to me, the guide should have been standing next to the less experienced of the two anglers. In my travels to rivers across Canada and those far-flung, that’s the way I’ve always seen it done.

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