On May 10, four local youths took advantage of a spectacular day to do some paddling on Slocan Lake.
Hayden Kyle, 21, Jule Wiltshire-Padfield, 15, Skye Donnet, 18, and Lily Harmer-Taylor, 19, set out in a canoe from Rosebery to New Denver, about a six kilometer journey.
Shortly after 5 p.m., they began their return trip when something went horribly wrong. A man walking along a trail near the beach spotted the canoe about 150 meters from shore, partially submerged, with one person holding on to each end. The man ran to a nearby home to call for help.
Slocan Lake search and rescue responded along with the BC Ambulance Service and New Denver fire department. They found Harmer-Taylor in the canoe unconscious, but couldn’t locate her friends. Despite five hours of resuscitation attempts, she died overnight in hospital.
While the water was calm, Slocan Lake is extremely cold and deep.
The man whose canoe the youths borrowed described them as “wonderful kids.”
“They were really full of life and fun. Just marvelous people,” said Dan Nicholson, publisher of the Valley Voice. “It’s a huge loss.”
All four lived in the New Denver area, although Kyle was originally from Gibsons. Kyle and Harmer-Taylor both lived with Nicholson’s family in Rosebery, while Donnet lived with them for a while when he was younger.
Nicholson said he knew all of them except Kyle since infancy, as they were friends of his own kids. Each had one parent living locally and another somewhere else and they “bounced back and forth.”
Kyle had stayed with Nicholson’s family for a couple of months. He moved from the Sunshine Coast to Nelson where he worked on a demolition job with Donnet, and the two became close friends.
Once the job ended, Kyle needed a place to live, and asked Nicholson if he could stay with them until he got himself back on his feet.
Harmer-Taylor and Wiltshire-Padfield were a couple and planning to hitchhike to Regina to see her father. She was just finishing high school in New Denver. The previous fall, Nicholson and his wife offered her a place to stay.
On the day of the tragedy, the four took the canoe from Nicholson’s porch without telling him. That in itself was not a problem. However, they left the lifejackets sitting in the mud room.
“They’re 15 to 21. They don’t tell me everything they’re doing. If they’d asked, of course I would have said ‘Yes — be sure to grab the lifejackets.’”
He believes the three locals were experienced canoeists. “They grew up on this side of the lake. They weren’t perhaps the strongest swimmers, but I always felt they could handle themselves in the water.”
In the wake of the tragedy, a large group met on the beach for a healing ceremony, where they lit a fire, put candles in the water, and threw wreathes.
“It’s devastating. It’s incredibly tragic,” Nicholson said.
New Denver mayor Ann Bunka said her community and all others along the lake were “reeling” from the tragedy.
“This is a small community and every accident and loss is personal. This is a close knit community that rallies together in times of need and never has this been more apparent,” she said. “The outpouring of assistance to do whatever is needed is a trademark of this community and in times of loss is a reminder of why we live here.”
An RCMP dive team couldn’t locate the three missing young men. After the initial search was called off, their families hired a private company which used a remotely operated device to continue scouring the lake bottom.
After 16 days of tireless searching, the bodies were found in about 500 feet (152 m) of water and recovered.
RCMP Sgt. Darryl Little said we will never know exactly what went wrong.
“We cannot presume what happened. Our best speculation is misadventure. It wasn’t a very big canoe. There wasn’t much space below the gunnels and we figure the wind came up and that was it.”