Tragedy Sparks Call for Action

| By: Tony Cox

Big Trout Lake AlgonquinI was very sad to hear the news today that a Toronto student drowned while on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park being led by the Teachers at his school. It was reported that the student was swimming with his peers from the shores of their campsite at the time of his disappearance with 3 Life Guards present.

This is a terribly tragic situation for all involved. My thoughts go out to the student’s family who must be beside themselves with uncertainty, unanswered questions and grief.

I have been working in the outdoor Industry for over 25 years. I am a professional Wilderness Guide and a Canoe Tripping Instructor. I still actively instruct groups many times a year in remote and beautiful sections of our provincial parks and get the chance to witness lots of great things happening with other groups we encounter and also some very troubling things.

We know that there is a very particular set of skills and pre-requisite experiences required to safely take people into the wild spaces of our province and to expertly weave safe and positive learning expeditions while out there. I know very little about how this particular trip was being led and so choose to make no comment or judgment in absence of the facts. As more information emerges, perhaps a clearer picture of what happened will be realized.

There are some great schools under very skilled leadership who are self-managing expeditions with strong results but also others who seem to be ticking off all the boxes on the “check-list” prior to departure as trips are being sanctioned but then not actually observing best practices while the trip is unfolding – the wearing of Life Jackets / Personal Flotation Devices being chief among them.

3 years ago I was instructing a canoe training program for a school group in the interior of Algonquin Park. Our group had spent much of the morning very carefully picking our way up the shore of a large lake and darting in and out of small islands to keep out of the full strength of the head wind. It was a challenging morning paddle, but safely facilitated by staying close together and after students were properly prepared, equipped and instructed for such conditions.

We stopped for lunch after portaging off the lake and then watched as a huge group of students streamed on to the lake where we were lunching – 14 canoes in all – 3 to a boat – and only 5 of the 42 people were wearing a P.F.D. They had just crossed the same lake we had with the same windy conditions.

The water was still cold at the end of May and if some of their canoes had have capsized, it would have been disastrous. The O.P.H.E.A. Guidelines in the province of Ontario clearly state that students and staff must wear a P.F.D. at all times when in a canoe or even while loading it.

It was clear that this school was not adhering to the guidelines that day even when they would have signed off on them to have their trip approved by their Board. Following best practices and adequate supervision are two of the most essential elements for creating safe experiences in the back-country. So often it is when poor judgment leads to departures from these important fixtures that tragic accidents can occur.

It is a tremendous responsibility to safe-guard the well-being of other people’s children and as a parent I understand that profoundly. In the pursuit of positive adventures and safe expeditionary learning experiences, I hope that regardless of what has occurred here in this recent tragedy that people in our industry use it as a wake up call for greater vigilance.

These types of programs for young men and women are deeply powerful experiences with long lasting impacts when led by experienced and well-trained Instructors and Facilitators. Statistically speaking, the most dangerous part of a canoe trip is the bus ride to the “put in”. Watch for some of our upcoming articles on the Transformative nature of our wilderness canoe programs.

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