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Bittersweet honour for Island lifesaving quartet in wake of canoe tragedy

Port Alberni men advocate for better safety at Sproat Lake after tragedy that claimed one life
Kleecoot Arm, part of Sproat Lake, as seen from Bob Cole’s deck. Four Port Alberni men are being honoured for saving two teenagers in a boating accident in the lake in November 2023. (PHOTO COURTESY BOB COLE)

Four men from Port Alberni will be receiving lifesaving medals for saving two teenagers in a canoeing accident on Sproat Lake last November.

The award is bittersweet for two of the men, Bob Cole and Kelly Lance. While two teenagers were saved, a third drowned and his body was not found until the next day.

READ MORE: Teenager drowns after canoe flips during weekend trip on Sproat Lake

The Lifesaving Society, BC and Yukon Branch, will award Cole, Lance, John Mahaffy and David Murphy with the Silver Medal of Merit at the 112th annual Commonwealth Awards for Honour and Rescue on March 9, 2024 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.

The tragedy unfolded on Nov. 11, 2023, a statutory holiday in B.C.

Lance said he was in the right place at the right time to be able to help. “I was dropping my kids off that weekend” at his father-in-law John Mahaffy’s place. “I was just getting ready to leave when the neighbour came running to the house and told us what was happening.”

The teens, all 17, had left the boat ramp at the provincial park in a canoe that morning. Around noon the wind picked up and it started raining heavily.

Neighbours on the shore of Kleecoot Arm, one of four arms that comprise Sproat Lake, heard shouting and rushed into action.

Cole had just left home and received a call from his neighbour about the rescue. “I said, ‘take my boat.’” Mahaffy, who fishes with Cole, ran to the dock to get Cole’s recreational boat ready to go.

Lance, who spends a lot of time on the water and as an industrial first aid attendant has dealt with serious incidents in the past, went out on the boat with Mahaffy.

“It was raining, it wasn’t super rough at the time. We spotted their backpacks and a bunch of stuff out there pretty easily.”

The teens, all from out of town according to Lance, had been in the water for about 25 minutes by the time he and Mahaffy reached them. The teens were exhausted, hypothermic and traumatized. Their canoe sank and they were not wearing life jackets.

Rescuers initially reached a fully clothed girl, Lance pulling her into the boat. Mahaffy maneuvered the boat toward a second individual that had shed some heavy clothing but was still struggling in the water.

It was then the rescuers were told there was a third individual in the water, but he was nowhere to be found.

David Murphy was fishing nearby and offered to help. He was able to take a GPS reading of the site, pinpointing the depth and location. This helped Alberni Valley Search and Rescue, and later the RCMP dive team in locating the third person, who was deceased.

Lance said he doesn’t think what he did is particularly award worthy. “It’s an award for being a good human,” he said. “It’s something anybody who has got some decency in them would do to help.”

He is unsure whether he will attend the ceremony. Cole said he likely won’t.

Cole said instead of the award he would rather see a summer life jacket program at the Sproat Lake Provincial Park boat ramp extended year-round.

Every summer the Sproat Lake Marine Patrol has a life jacket loaner program: several life jackets are hung on a board for anyone to sign out, particularly youth. The program only runs until the end of August.

Cole said having life jackets available in a wooden locker year-round could prevent further tragedies. “They’re needed more in winter and fall and spring when there’s no boats on the water,” he said.

“If they had been there that day maybe those kids would have seen (life jackets) and the story would have been different.”

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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