River roughs up racers

Ron Williams came to Prince George as one of the favourites, trying for his seventh win in Northern Hardware Centennial Canoe Race, but instead ended up in intensive care at UHNBC.

The 75-year-old from Victoria and his former paddling partner Bruce Hawkenson, 74, made a costly miscalculation attempting to navigate the Nechako River rapids after getting tipped out of his canoe in a training run four days before Sunday's race.

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They dumped their canoe on two separate occasions after being swallowed by walls of whitewater.

But the worst was yet to come for Williams. As he got out of the river at the Miworth boat launch he felt dizzy and managed to get that under control but had another dizzy spell and lost his strength while walking up stairs at Hawkenson's home in Prince George.

He went to the hospital where doctors determined he'd suffered a mild heart attack.

Williams remained at UHNBC until Sunday morning, when he convinced medical staff to let him out on a four-hour pass so he join the crowd of spectators watching the end of the race at Lheidli T'enneh Memorial Park with intravenous lines still attached to his wrists.

"I decided to take the day off," quipped Williams, while waiting to see Fiona and Mike Vincent win the Alexander Mackenzie Class race from Isle Pierre, after Chris Nicholson and Randy Brooks captured the Simon Fraser Class title.

Williams said he and Hawkenson should have had other boaters with them and done more scouting of the conditions before they tried to shoot the rapids on their practice run.

"With all our ancient wisdom we should not have gone down there without somebody else with us because accidents do happen and we went into the rapids the way we've always have done but it's 30 years since we've gone down there and it's changed," said Williams.

"We got through the first rapids at Isle Pierre very easily and we only took on a tea cup full of water. But for the second set of rapids (Upper Whitemud) I decided to hop behind my front thwart (crossbeam) on my knees, which is usually safer in waves, but I forgot I'd greased my legs with sun lotion and my knees were like ball bearings and I was flying all over the canoe every time we hit a wave and the next thing we knew we were upside-down. We were in the water a long time and got tired."

Williams figured they drifted three or four miles and for 20 minutes before they got to shore. Hawkenson was pulled away from the boat and was quarter-mile behind Williams before they hooked up again on the shore.

They dumped the water out of their boat and returned to the river and were almost through the second Whitemud rapids when they flipped again.

"We started into the 'Mud the way we've always gone - bad idea," said Williams.

"We should have got out and looked at it first because we got blown off the rock right sideways into about a 10 or 12 foot hole and literally dropped through the air and buried ourselves."

Williams took the impact squarely on one of his thighs and Hawkenson scraped up his arm.

They drifted over boulders and other debris for another 10 minutes before they got to the shore again.

Meanwhile at Miworth, Williams's wife Katherine and Hawkenson's wife Jay were waiting for them, wondering why they were half an hour late until they got there in the power boat. They had told the jet boat operators to watch for their husbands who were found drifting in the canoe about 16 km west of Miworth, having lost three of their four paddles.

Williams has had a few heart issues with an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and knew the dizzy spells were a warning sign his ticker was acting up again.

Jim Bauer of Spokane, Wash., 70, whom Williams had lined up as his race partner, hooked up instead with Dennis Wick and they won the senior category and placed fifth overall. Hawkenson completed the shorter 35 km race from Miworth with Don Williams.

During the race, the Prince George Jet Boat Association supplied six boats staffed by Prince George Search and Rescue volunteers trained in swift water rescues and they watched the rapids sections for mishaps. It didn't take long before their services were required.

The Nechako reservoir at the Kenney dam has just been closed and until recently, water has been released to allow for the spring melt. The high water increased the risk of capsizing. Just two kilometres into the race from Isle Pierre, one of the canoe teams was swamped by waves in the first rapids section and flipped. Before the race was over the rescue boats had been called upon 10 times to bail out boaters who went for unplanned swims.

Edith Palumbo and her son Sean, a Prince George firefighter, went sideways approaching a big boulder and flipped their canoe in the Lower Whitemud rapids and were pulled out by a rescue boat unscathed after drifting in the swift-moving river. But they lost their grip on their canoe and it bent around a rock and was destroyed.

"It was operator error and inexperience," said Sean Palumbo.

"We were too far out and once we got there it was too tough to correct and we flipped. We were holding the canoe until we saw the big wave and we let go. Those jet boat guys were amazing, we weren't in the water for more than a minute."

Race winner Mike Vincent suggested if the race happens again next year, organizers might want to allow covers for the canoes to reduce the risk of tipping.

"If you keep the water out, people don't generally tip in the rapids," Vincent said. "What happens is the boat gets half full of water and that water sloshes back and forth and then they roll over."

Other than the injuries suffered by Williams and Hawkenson in their practice run, there were no serious casualties Sunday.

"I'm thrilled everyone was safe," said race organizer Pat Turner, who teamed up with Greg Blackburn to finish second in the Mackenzie Class.

"The Jet Boat Association and Prince George Search and Rescue, plus the Ham Radio Society (Prince George Amateur Radio Club) kept everyone safe."

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