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'Thanks for saving his life': Man rescued at Little Qualicum Falls recovering in hospital

Nick Rivers was relieved to hear on Monday that the man he rescued from the raging waters of Little Qualicum River on the weekend is in hospital and is recovering.
Nick Rivers, a 28-year-old search-and-rescue volunteer from Parksville, saved a man stranded in the river in Little Qualicum Falls Park on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. COURTESY OF NICK RIVERS

Nick Rivers was relieved to hear on Monday that the man he rescued from the raging waters of Little Qualicum River on the weekend is in hospital and is recovering.

The Arrowsmith search and rescue manager received a mid-day email from the man’s friends: “His condition is improving and thanks for saving his life.”

Rivers said, “It feels great,” to receive that message.

“A lot of times we don’t hear how people are doing so it’s a pretty incredible feeling when people reach out like that.”

Rivers, 28, of Parksville, was swamped by news media on Monday eager to hear how he risked his own life Saturday afternoon to save a stranger who fell off a log into the river, with a waterfall just 4.5 metres below him.

The episode was captured in a dramatic video showing the wild conditions of the river and the danger involved in the high-risk rescue in Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park.

“The forces on us were absolutely incredible,” Rivers said.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know exactly how I was able to hang onto him for as long as I did. It was definitely not easy.”

About 30 people were on hand — Arrowsmith Search and Rescue’s team, fire departments, RCMP and the Alberni Valley Rescue Squad.

The area is lined with a fence so it is unclear how the man ended up in the water. “I think he must have fallen from somewhere. I don’t know from where though.”

Rivers was roped up and lowered into the river, which runs through a steep gorge where cliffs are 26 metres tall.

The man straddling the log was in a “very precarious position,” Rivers said. He estimated the man had likely been there for 25 to 30 minutes, with his legs in frigid water, by the time he reached him.

When Rivers went into the pool, he first attempted to get upstream onto another log.

“I tried to climb up that log so that I could get into the river and come down and end up on his log in front of him.” That would have allowed Rivers to put a harness on the man.

“But I couldn’t pull myself up. The current was much too strong.”

Instead, “I came in below him … I got up to the log and then he lost his grip and got knocked off the log.

“At that point, he was headed to the waterfall so I jumped after him and just grabbed a hold of him,” Rivers said.

“I just physically held him until they could pull us in with the rope system.”

The two were pounded and bounced around by the rough water. “There were a few times I was underwater for longer than I would have liked.”

Eventually, with the help of the team hauling ropes at the top of the cliff, Rivers and the man made it to the side of the river. At that point, the harness went on and the two were hauled up together.

Asked how long it took, ­Rivers laughed and said: “It felt like a couple of hours but it was probably only about 25 minutes.”

In the video, the man is slumped over at the end of a log.

“He appeared to be so hypothermic that he pretty much had no strength left,” Rivers said. “Pretty much couldn’t talk anymore.”

The man was put on a stretcher and B.C. Ambulance took him away.

Rivers has been in search-and-rescue for a decade. The Parksville resident is also a ground-search team leader, is trained in rope rescue and serves on the Arrowsmith SAR executive. He owns N. Rivers Auto and Marine, a repair and fabrication business.

“In terms of water involvement, this is definitely the most challenging and technical for sure, probably one of the more riskier tasks,” he said.

Ropes are not typically attached during water rescues. But because the ropes were ­vertical, rather than horizontal, “We were able to keep the rope on me so I couldn’t go over the falls.”

The team trains a lot and is prepared for the environment, Rivers said. There are 54 active members. This year, the ­volunteer team trained for almost 5,000 hours. That’s down from the usual 6,500 hours because of COVID-19, he said.

The Arrowsmith group goes out on 50 to 60 calls each year.

Events such as Saturday’s are “scary,” he said. “It is not exactly a theme park. It’s real life and you are physically holding on to somebody and mustering every amount of energy you can to save their life. So it’s stressful for sure. Yeah, it’s a challenge.”

Rivers believes the man had been with a group of friends. The man was dressed in typical hiking clothes.

Thoughts of his own family went through Rivers’ mind during the rescue.

B.C. Parks’ website cautions visitors about this area: “Riverbanks can be very slippery. Stay away from cliff and riverbank edges.

“Sections of this river contain waterfalls, strong currents and other hazards. Boating is not recommended. Jumping from bridges or cliffs is prohibited.”

Lives have been lost in the river.

In 2013, 17-year-old Lukas Whibley fell into the river near the falls and died. He had been climbing a rock face.

Arrowsmith Search and Rescue were on hand for that incident as well, spending 11 hours at the scene. Members helped three other teenagers off a rock bluff that day.

A SAR manager said then that there had been another fatality about a decade earlier.