Accident Database

Report ID# 3684

  • Flush Drowning
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water

Accident Description

Calgary's mayor says the city may have to improve the signage along the Bow River upstream of the Harvie Passage. A man in his 30s died Monday after his raft flipped on the Bow River. The man was with three friends, going through the features of the new Harvie Passage just before 4 p.m. MT. He was transported to Foothills Medical Centre in life-threatening condition, where he later died.

The whitewater park is the redesigned Calgary weir, which officially opened this season after four years of construction. Naheed Nenshi stressed Tuesday that the area is for experienced water sport enthusiasts, not recreational rafters. "I'm a little concerned that the messaging around has been unclear. Some people may have the impression that floating through the Harvie Passage is like floating down the Elbow on a sunny day and it just isn't," said Nenshi. All four of the rafters were wearing life jackets.

The Calgary Fire Department's Jason Doyscher said the Harvie Passage is a dangerous area. "It does take some skill to manoeuvre through this area. People need to be aware that, even though it's warm out, they need to take those precautions and make sure that they understand the water conditions - the water is still quite murky, there is still a lot of debris in this area," said Doyscher. Doyscher said the high water in the area is cause for concern. "At this time we're asking people just to stay off the water, completely, at all, there's no reason to be on it at all down here, unless you are a skilled individual."

Doyscher said the area is only for experienced boaters, but with the high water, even they shouldn't be on the river. Fire officials have asked people to stay off the rivers as melting snow in the mountains has increased water levels and the speed of the current. A CBC videographer was at the river while the incident happened. The video posted above shows the people navigating through the passage before the accident.

The redesigned weir Harvie Passage is located on the Bow River slightly downstream of the Calgary Zoo. It features two separate channels, labelled as Class 2 and Class 3 rapids. The features are designed for trained whitewater kayakers and river rafters. The weir, often called a "drowning machine," was known for its heavy undertow. This is the first death on the weir since it was redesigned.

Four rafters who capsized in Harvie Passage on Monday, including the man fatally injured after falling into its swift currents, were warned to turn back because boating conditions were too dangerous.But without powers to impose an all-out ban on recreational boating during high river flows, local emergency crews can do little to stop Calgarians determined to venture out into water they know isn’t safe. "We don’t have that authority during high water to actually stop you from going on, and I think that’s critical," said animal bylaw services director Bill Bruce."If we are expected as a municipality to police this — between fire, police and us — we definitely need the authority to order you off if the conditions are unsafe."


On Monday afternoon, a large multi-chambered whitewater raft with four passengers overturned after getting caught in the Harvie Passage rapids in the Bow River near the Calgary Zoo.Three people made it to shore safely, but a fourth man was taken from the river 750 metres downstream near the 17th Avenue S.E. bridge.He later died of his injuries.

Charges are still being considered in the case, but emergency responders are frustrated the death happened at all. "They were stopped on the river, made aware (of dangerous conditions) and the vessel was inspected," said Calgary Police Service marine unit Acting Sgt. Ed Perkins."Unfortunately, it does seem that a lot of the people we stop out on the river are aware of the risks," Perkins said. This week’s rafting death was preventable, said Calgary fire Chief Bruce Burrell.His office issued high water advisories warning that double the normal amount of water is flowing through Calgary’s two rivers, making them unsafe to float on."Calgarians, until the river conditions change, the Bow and Elbow rivers are not safe for anyone — regardless of their perceived skill, ability and equipment," Burrell reaffirmed on Tuesday.

The water is so treacherous that Burrell won’t even send his own water rescue team out on routine patrols.Yet he’s forced to put the lives of his firefighters at risk if someone chooses to avoid numerous warnings and battle the Bow anyway. "I can’t overly emphasize how important it is for citizens to wait until conditions on both rivers improve. Don’t take the chance of placing your safety or the safety of emergency responders at risk. This is the best way to prevent another serious incident from occurring," Burrell said in a media release.

Calgary police issued 119 summonses over the weekend for various boating safety infractions on the Bow and Elbow rivers in an effort to pull people from the water, said Perkins.Officers inspected boats as they prepared to enter the Bow River last weekend, urging users not to take the risk. Members of the CPS marine division stopped rafts and kayaks while on the river to once again warn of the dangers ahead, especially at the Harvie Passage rapids. But police, fire or bylaw officers can do nothing if boaters who are otherwise abiding by safety regulations choose to continue on dangerous waters. "A ban would have to be done by the federal Department of Transportation," Burrell said, when asked why boaters weren’t simply ordered out of the river."I would like to see a river ban. Apparently it is a complex issue. We have had people working on that with the province and the feds," he said.Officials with provincial Environment and Transportation departments confirmed it was not their jurisdiction to impose the type of recreational boating ban being recommended for Calgary.And Transport Canada department staff did not offer comment on the issue by press time.

Just as local RCMP officers can close a highway temporarily due to low visibility, Calgary’s bylaw expert Bruce would like to see the fire chief granted the automatic power to shut down boating on local rivers when the water levels are too high."I can stop you if you have alcohol. I can stop you if you have no life-jacket and order you not to proceed. . . . But in a case like this where you are making a choice for your personal safety, I don’t have the authority, neither does the (fire) chief or the police, to override that decision," Bruce said.Even when the spring waters recede, the rapids at Harvie Passage present a safety concern. A $17-million initiative has helped mitigate some of the dangers of the local weir, which has claimed 14 lives over the last century.The Harvie Passage project established two channels with a series of pools and rapids for outdoor enthusiasts to traverse. But the Class 2 and Class 3 rapids, designed for experienced and expert paddlers only, are still formidable.

"The weir was dubbed the drowning machine, and now that it’s removed, it lulls people into a false sense of security," said Finlay MacNeill, paddle co-ordinator for the University of Calgary’s Outdoor Centre."People are not aware of the actual hazards at the Harvie Passage. You need to make sure you have the skills that are appropriate. It is an advanced whitewater facility. A good way to do that is to take a course through the Outdoor Centre or to hire a guide," MacNeill said.Harvie Passage features a series of constrictions and drops for paddlers, which can cause standing waves. Those waves can increase when overall water levels rise, leading to people being caught in the rapids longer."The longer that you are in there, the potential for hazard and for something to go wrong increases," MacNeill said.Burrell is troubled by an overall spike of rescue calls for the Harvie Passage area.Since April, the Calgary Fire Department’s water rescue team has responded to 36 rescue calls at Harvie Passage — including 26 cases where the need for help was confirmed.In the past, the department might receive four or five calls for help near the old weir annually .Burrell wants Calgarians to know that even with recent changes to the weir, the local rapids aren’t for first-time paddlers or for anyone in a rubber raft."It is less dangerous than the weir that was there previously, but it is still dangerous for inexperienced boaters," Burrell said."I’m sure a lot of people perceive themselves to have more experience paddling than is necessary. Inflatable boats cannot go down Harvie Passage safely. Even our inflatable rescue craft do not go down through Harvie Passage safely."Mayor Naheed Nenshi added his voice to mounting warnings about the still-deadly Bow River weir."Some people may have the impression that floating through the Harvie Passage is like floating down the Elbow River on a sunny day, and it just isn’t," Nenshi said Tuesday."Even though it’s much safer than the weir was, it really is for experienced people, for experienced rafters and kayakers — it’s not for people like me, who are floating down the river. And I’m not sure we made that clear enough," he said. With files from Jason Markusoff, Calgary Herald Read more:

Here’s a summary - corrections are welcomed. 

An experienced open canoe river paddler, Brad Kuhl died tragically after a raft flip in Harvie Passage. His group of four was in a small, rented NRS paddle raft – a suitable boat for intermediate whitewater. 

The flow was high (around 350 cms) but had dropped by about one-half over the prior week. While there were still recommendations to stay off the river, there were increasing numbers of boaters who ignored the warnings, including kayakers paddling in both channels around the time. Kuhl’s group ran and re-ran the right channel without problem, and advanced to the main channel. The posted sign would suggest a moderate increase in challenge (grade II to III). 

PFD’s were worn and secured, but not helmets, and clothing was light for a cold-water swim - it was July 2 and the water would have been cold but not frigid. Weather was ideal, as shown by the Police clothing. 

Reportedly, after their raft flipped in #3L, Brad swam to shore but then re-entered the water, apparently thinking someone was still in the river. His subsequent death was due to exposure and perhaps ‘dry-drowning’ and it’s likely that the swim through Tatonka (#4) contributed to the stress. 

Brad’s life and death were commemorated in ‘The End’, the weekly final page article in Macleans. 

(A good friend who had been on a number of multi-day canoe trips with Brad described him as very sensible, and comfortable with prior river swims - he was thus shocked by the outcome.

As Barry indicated, this resulted in considerable media exposure. Most of the Calgarians that we know, including many non-boaters, have heard of the fatality. There’s now more widespread awareness that Harvie Passage can be hazardous. 

And finally, I’m not a fan of booms but signage could probably be improved. 

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