Chris O’Gorman was walking his Russian mountain dog Boris along the Kootenay River on the Slocan Pool Trail Tuesday morning when he saw an overturned boat circling in a back eddy.
“I could see a boat out there but I couldn’t quite hear what the voice was saying. I could hear that it was one syllable over and over again, and that caught my attention. That doesn’t sound like conversation. I looked out and I was like is that boat okay? It was pretty far away on the other side of the Slocan Pool,” the 39-year-old South Slocan resident said.
Then the 12’ aluminum boat pivoted with the current.
“I could see it was an overturned boat with somebody half on top of it. I hear him say ‘help, help, help.’ So I ran back toward the trailhead because I’ve got my canoe stashed in the bushes near the trailhead. I’m running and I’m thinking what am I going to do? I don’t have a lifejacket, I don’t have a paddle,” he said.
Then he spotted a “flattish sort of board stick” lying nearby and grabbed it. And after instructing Boris to wait on shore, O’Gorman pushed out into the current.
“The river’s raging right now. You know, white caps and swirling. I had to cross the main current and it was pretty gnarly. I didn’t have a proper paddle to negotiate it. I was yelling at him the whole time saying I’m coming, hang on. I didn’t know if he could hear me because the current was so loud.”
Finally, O’Gorman reached the 84-year-old Glade resident.
“I could see at that point he’s got a lifejacket on. He’s an old guy, hanging on and it was starting to look like he was losing it. I said to him whatever you do, don’t flip me. I realized he probably didn’t have the strength to pull himself into the boat without endangering us. So I gave him my tow rope and started paddling to the other shore, the south shore.”
With the dead weight of the senior behind him, it took O’Gorman “10 to 15 minutes of givin’ ‘er” to reach safety. He was worried his makeshift paddle would snap before he could reach the shore.
“I was just dripping in sweat. So overheated. I was fighting the current,” he said.
When they reached the shore, O’Gorman had the man strip off his clothes and he rung them out. He started to prepare a fire. But after assuring that the man wasn’t experiencing hypothermia, he decided to make the trek back across the river.
“I thought maybe the best thing is to load him up in my boat and take him across again. I’m exhausted at this point. Got him to sit right in the bottom so we’ll be low centre of gravity,” he said.
Crossing meant navigating the main current again, and this time O’Gorman was caught in a whirlpool.
“We started spinning in circles. It was kind of sketchy. I thought if he goes in again, he’s done.”
But this story has a happy ending, because shortly after they reached the shore and O’Gorman drove his new friend home. He spoke to the man’s wife, told him to get her husband in a hot shower, to feed him soup and tea, and then he headed back down to the river to retrieve the man’s boat for him.
“I remember he was like `that’s it for fishing season. I think I’ll stick to golf’,” said O’Gorman, with a laugh.
Around that time, O’Gorman saw emergency vehicles.
“I saw two pass me. I think one was search and rescue with Sea-Doos on the back. I was like right, I guess I should call somebody,” he said.
Dog walkers had alerted emergency services when they saw the overturned boat with nobody in sight. The RCMP received the call at approximately 11 a.m.
“I called them and I was like hey, just in case there’s a search going on, I got buddy safe. He was the only one there. It’s all good.”
O’Gorman was relieved to find out they were already retrieving the man’s boat and taking it to Glade.
“I was like great, I don’t have to go back into that river,” he said.
When asked how he felt after the ordeal, O’Gorman smiled and shrugged. “It was pretty obvious at the time. You see a guy yelling for help out on the lake? I’m just glad I had a boat. If I hadn’t had a boat there was nothing I could’ve done. I’m just so thankful I had a boat there. It was a stroke of luck for everyone.”
And when pressed about whether or not he was scared, O’Gorman laughed. “Once I got out into the current I realized how dangerous it was, you know? I felt vulnerable not wearing a lifejacket. I’m a guy who always wears my lifejacket and I thought if I go down here, I’m done. Of course it’s fresh in everyone’s mind after what happened at Slocan Lake.”
O’Gorman personally knew one of the four youths who recently drowned. He said another friend drowned last year on the Skeena River. He’s happy neither he nor the man he rescued have been added to that list.
“The RCMP would like to thank Mr. O’Gorman for his heroic rescue. It is another reminder of the importance in always wearing a lifejacket while boating or using any other type of water craft,” said Sgt. Darryl Little.
“In this case the life jacket and the timely arrival of Mr. O’Gorman prevented a potential tragedy on Kootenay River.”
And how about the rescued man? Was he thankful?
“I think he was mostly worried what his wife was going to think.”