On August 2, Aric Keane, his wife Allissa and four of their good friends decided to beat the summer heat by rafting the St. Mary’s River.
Born and raised in Kimberley, and with a wealth of water experience under his belt, Keane is no stranger to the waters of St. Mary’s. However, after finding himself in a life-or-death situation in the river, Keane said he wants to share his story with as many people as he can.
“The river was high and fast,” Keane recalled of that Sunday. Because of the late, snow winter melt this year and the precipitation-heavy spring, the river’s flow rates are significantly harder than usual. That also resulted in more new logjams forming, as existing logjams increased in size due to constantly collecting more debris, creating bigger hazards on a daily basis.
Back in January, Keane became a member of Kimberley Search and Rescue, something he’s wanted to do for a long time; though he wanted to be clear that he tells his story not as a SAR member, but of his own accord.
He was aware that there has been numerous swift-water rescues in the past few weeks. That knowledge and knowing how intense the flow rates were, plus physical exhaustion from a long overtime shift the day before, gave Keane a feeling in the back of his head that “maybe we shouldn’t do this.”
“But, like everyone else, you just say ‘no we’ll be fine.’”
About ten minutes into their float they came out of a current that spit them out, causing them to lose control and spin a 360-degree rotation. They hit the logjam and were ejected from their raft.
“We 360’ed, we got shot into the logjam, we hit it, the raft flipped towards upstream, so we got tossed off the raft upstream and floated back down into it,” Keane said. “And at that time, my wife had a life jacket on, so she popped up right away, which was probably the thing that saved her life.”
When Allissa popped up, he grabbed her from behind her arms and grabbed a tree, holding their heads up and then slowly they worked their way across the jam, trying to keep their heads above the water.
“Every little movement I made would pull us back down because the river’s so powerful.”
While this was happening, his four friends were trying to do what they could to help, though Keane couldn’t physically see them, as he was preoccupied trying to save himself and his wife.
“I did at one point notice our friend Tom, he was upstream from us and he was fashioning some sort of throw bag to try and assist us,” Keane said. “He thankfully had just finished his swift water rescue technician level one about five months ago. So he kind of had an idea of what he was going to do.”
Brad, another of their friends, was downstream. Keane assumed he was setting up a containment area ready to catch one of them if they popped through.
“But the other two, they weren’t able to cross — the river was strong and they weren’t able to get across. And then there was other bystanders that were watching quite helplessly as well.
“It was very exhaustive. The only thing that I think got me through it was adrenaline.”
In a blog post Keane wrote about the experience, Keane said that at this point, Allissa said to him, “Aric, I’m scared.”
“The sound of her voice was sheer terror,” he wrote in his blog. “Like nothing, I have ever heard before. Her plea for help was enough to remind me of my purpose in this situation. I was to save her. And the only way I was able to save her was first to save myself.”
Once Keane got Allissa high enough up on the log where she was able to hold her shoulder strap of her vest while hooking around the log, he had to wrap his body around the logjam and slide out right alongside the log, as that was the area with the least amount of current.
“I was able to get a leg over and then pull myself up, this whole time I never did take a hand off Alissa though, I held on to her the whole time. And then once I was up I was able to grab the bottom of her lifejacket and it probably took three or four pulls but finally I got her above the water and flopped her over.”
After getting himself and his wife out of the water, the two of them lay on top of the log jam for about five minutes. Keane’s arms were shaking from exhaustion and adrenaline.
“I thought at one point that I would for sure be gone,” he said, “but the one thing I couldn’t live with was not knowing what would happen to her if I didn’t make it so it just got me through it.”
As they worked their way off the jam their friends started converging with them.
“There was emotion. I mean, people were scared, our one friend was crying because she was so terrified,” he said.
“There was a lot of fear, a lot of gratitude as well that we did obviously come out on the right side. There was one moment when we were on the log, Allissa asked me, ‘can we go under?’ It’s never recommended, which I might have been able to but I couldn’t see exactly what was under there.
“I said to Allissa, you won’t make it, you will snag and there’s no getting you out.”
After this, Tom went to get the truck and Keane and Allissa were given sandals from their friends to walk up to the road, as they both lost theirs in the current.
They then headed to the Kimberley campground and sat in little pools in the river there and debriefed with one another.
Since then, Keane said he doesn’t necessarily have anxiety or fear from the incident, though the first five nights following he didn’t sleep well as he kept replaying the situation and all its potential possible outcomes in his mind. However, he said he definitely has a new respect for the water.
“I already had respect for the water, but it’s definitely a new respect,” he said. “Because, like I said, I never thought I would be surrounded by water, the most comfortable place, staring at death.”
His friends in SAR are like a second family to him, he said, and they were there for him to talk about the situation and be supportive.
“They’re all adventurous type people, a lot of them have been in situations like myself and that’s what makes them want to help people, because they know what it’s like to be in that scared situation.”
This was for Aric, however, the first time he’d been in such a situation.
“It was an experience that I wish I didn’t have to have, but at the same time I’m grateful I had it, and of the outcome. To make sure that I am being safe when I do things now.”
He also hopes to share this story with as many people as he can. The blog post, while also being a therapeutic way of getting past the event, has reached over 8000 people, and he was happy to share the experience with the Bulletin.
A lesser-experienced person in the same situation may not have gotten out alive, he said. In addition to SAR training, Keane also was a lifeguard for eight years and a competitive swimmer and coach for 14 years.
“I just really want to encourage people to consider all the possibilities of what could happen and if you’re prepared for those situations,” he said. “That’s the main thing, again it doesn’t matter if it’s on water or hiking in the nature park. Things can happen and when they happen they go south.”
Adding to the urgency of getting his message out is the fact that SAR’s callouts are up 50 per cent province wide, due in part, Keane thinks, to the fact that people are tired of being stuck at home and want to get out and do something.
“I don’t want people to not be adventurous and not push themselves, but you need to have a certain level of knowledge and safety is always a priority.”
There are numerous ways to inform yourself and become better prepared to handle potentially life-threatening situations, not only on the water, but hiking, climbing or any other activity out in nature. Keane’s story of survival illustrates just how quickly a fun day out on the river can turn south.
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