Lake Diefenbaker - Learning From Tragedy

In the wake of five lives claimed, safety is crucial moving forward

The May long weekend – just a matter of days away – will once again serve as the kickoff to another busy tourist season in the Lake Diefenbaker region.

Seasonal businesses will reopen their doors and offer the many fun amenities that will contribute to the memories of those who use them.

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Meanwhile, the lake itself will become a flurry of activity like it always is at this time of the year with people looking to take in their favorite water recreation activities, whether it’s swimming, boating, canoeing, kayaking, tubing, skiing, boarding, or fishing.

Life in this part of the province has been like this for decades, and it goes without saying that a lot of people routinely look forward to another year ‘on the lake’, and for good reason.

But in 2018, there’s something of an uneasiness in the air as another busy summer approaches.  To quell that feeling, there’s hope in this area that people will truly take to heart what can happen when one isn’t being as safe in the water as one should, or when you underestimate the unearthly power that water can wield at a moment’s notice.

That power was felt in the summer of 2017, when Lake Diefenbaker and the connecting South Saskatchewan River claimed five lives within a span of roughly six weeks.  It’s a nightmarish statistic that is equal parts tragic, bizarre, and just plain horrific.

On Sunday, July 16, 17-year old Justin Warwaruk of Outlook went missing near the Fred Heal boat launch in the waters of the South Saskatchewan River, approximately 12 km south of Saskatoon.  For five days, there was no sight of the young man as family and friends searched frantically.  Justin’s body was found on Friday, July 21 roughly two kilometers downriver from the launch, and an entire community mourned deeply.

On Thursday, July 20, a raging summer storm that swept through the area resulted in the waves of Lake Diefenbaker reaching as high as 1.8 meters.  For two Elbow-area men boating on the north side of the lake, the storm may have been what contributed to their sad passing after their boat capsized.  A kayaker who saw the boat capsize and happened to be a paramedic pulled one of the men to shore and performed CPR, but he had already died.  The body of the second man was found the following morning after the storm.

On Saturday, July 29, a man operating a boat in the lake ended up falling into the water in distress.  A woman who was also onboard attempted to rescue him, but she was unsuccessful.  It wasn’t until August 6 that the man’s body was located, and it was discovered in the area where he was last seen.

On Monday, September 4, two men were operating a boat in the lake near Danielson Provincial Park in Pumphouse Bay when it capsized.  One man swam to shore and went for help, but the other – a 70-year old man from Saskatoon – sadly lost his life and was found deceased in the water.

Five lives; sadly and tragically gone in just a matter of weeks.  The incidents were a jolting reminder that while the waters of both Lake Diefenbaker and the South Saskatchewan River can be inviting, calm and serene, one should always know what they can be capable of if the proper precautions aren’t taken.

The need to be safe and know your surroundings as it relates to the lake is of the utmost importance this year as the tourist season kicks off.

In an email to this writer, Joel Perry, the manager of both Douglas and Danielson Provincial Parks shared a short but effective message that one can only hope hits home with those who’ll be taking in the lake this season.

“My opinion is simple,” he wrote.  “People need to respect the lake, do their own due diligence and familiarize themselves with the lake if it is new to them, and do not take any unnecessary risks.”

Respecting the lake and doing one’s due diligence is something that Rob Hundeby also hopes to see in order to spread education and hopefully prevent another tragedy from occurring.  Hundeby is the mayor of the village of Elbow, a community that is directly connected to Lake Diefenbaker through their shared history and side-by-side location to each other.  As such, the village of approximately 337 people is very much a resort destination that relies on the busy tourism season to boost its local economy.  Remember the town of Amity in the movie ‘Jaws’?  Elbow is something like that; the village relies on those “summer dollars” to make it through the quieter times of the year.

Despite all that happened last year, there didn’t seem to be any hit to the local tourism sector, and Hundeby said it can come down to our province’s unpredictable weather that can have effects on the lake.

“To my knowledge, there was no impact towards tourism,” said Rob.  “I think people do have to be very aware of the largeness of the lake, and also how quickly a summer storm can come up.  I know in the one instance where the people thought they had time to get back, the storm just came up so fast.  I also think that, coming from Saskatchewan on the ‘bald prairie’, we’re just not used to summer storms and the seriousness of the lake.  To those boating on the lake, we just urge caution.  There are people who’ve been boating on Lake Diefenbaker for over 60 years, and they said that 2017 had more storms than normal, and I think with some of the changing weather patterns that we’re seeing, who knows what 2018 holds for us?”

The multiple incidents of last summer undoubtedly drew the attention of the media, both locally and province-wide.  To Rob, the collective coverage didn’t necessarily show a negative as it relates to the lake, but rather what can happen in the blink of an eye, and it reinforced the need to be safe more than ever.

“The news last year carried out provincially and locally created a lot of public attention,” he said.  “I don’t think it was negatively viewed by tourism and those associated with the lake, but I think it just showed what can happen.  Anytime you have a tragic situation like that, I think it causes people to re-examine and self-reflect, and use more caution such as getting in early or maybe not even going out at all, depending on the forecast.”

As everyone hopes for a much more positive year on the water, Hundeby says the village is gearing up for another busy few months.

“We get excited; this is *our* harvest,” he said.  “It starts about the end of April, but things really kick off over May long weekend.  Our busiest weekend of the summer is August long weekend, while our second busiest is July long weekend, followed by May long and then September long.  We welcome everyone to come down to Elbow, and we’re excited to see them.  We’ve got five houses being built right now and things are growing again, so we’re definitely excited.  The golf course is open, we’ve got a new dock and new marina, so it’s a pretty exciting time in Elbow.”

While Elbow preps for what will surely be another busy and fun season ahead, one person will forever remember the incident that happened in the village last summer that almost ended his life.  To be frank, this person could’ve – and probably should’ve – been Victim #6 to add to the list of lives claimed by the water.

That person also happens to be my brother, Perry Ruttle.

On Saturday, July 29, he and his friend were involved in a jet-ski collision in Tufts Bay while out for what was supposed to be a day at the beach.

“We were unloading jet-skis and moving stuff across the bay to the other side, and just getting stuff ready to hang out on the beach,” Perry explained.  “We unloaded these jet-skis for two other guys, we weren’t even using them, and the one I was on was bogging really bad, so we took them out to the edge of the bay to open it up and blow the carbon out of it.  We should’ve been back in two minutes, but it only took 30 seconds, and what happened was just a collision between the two of us.  We drifted out further into the lake because one had capsized and the other wouldn’t steer, and it just kept dragging us out further and around the corner from the bay.  We finally ended up on a shore; we were stranded for about 2-2.5 hours.”

The end result saw Ruttle taken to the university hospital in Saskatoon, where he remained for eight days, dealing with seven broken ribs (ten if you count three being broken in two different places), a banged-up hip and cuts and bruises.  His recovery time was designated for two and a half months, but Ruttle still feels it today with pain in his shoulders and in his body’s right side, since that side was overcompensating for the left in the immediate aftermath of the collision.

Ruttle believes that it’s up to people using the lake to make the right choices and be responsible while in the water.

“It’s totally about being personally responsible, I think,” he said.  “There are always PSA’s (public service announcement), which are a good idea especially during the season.  All the different people who drowned, they were all different situations where there really wasn’t anything they could’ve done to prevent what happened.  I don’t think there’s much more that they could do other than maybe some PSA’s on the radio or TV.”

The fact that Perry is alive today while other people who went into the same water lost their own lives isn’t lost on him.  He credits his friend for saving his life that day, and the incident is something that is sure to stay with him mentally and emotionally for a very long time.

“I think about it because on the same day I had my accident, another man died on the other side of the lake,” he said, touching on the July 29 drowning.  “The STARS helicopter had to leave from picking me up to go look for him, and he didn’t make it and I did.  It messes with me, that’s for sure.  Once in awhile if I’m thinking about it, I think of just that BOOM and being in the water.  As soon as I came to in the water, I realized I was going to die there, and then I got pissed off.  I saw a light, and so I just kept on thrashing to get to it because I don’t know how to swim.  As soon as I burst out of the water, he was there.  If I had been out there by myself and something happened, I never would’ve made it.  He got me back to shore.  Mentally, it makes you wonder why you’re still here and how I could get banged up so bad and still fight my way out, while someone else just falls out of a boat and doesn’t.”

This spring and summer, people will be out and about enjoying Lake Diefenbaker and the South Saskatchewan River, and you certainly can’t blame them for it.  We’re fortunate to live in a part of the province with such incredible bodies of water that can provide so many cherished memories.  I personally love going down to Danielson Provincial Park and setting up shop on a patch of sand with a good book and a cold drink before taking a dip in the water to cool off.

I guess the whole point of this story is to tell you one simple thing before you pack up all that gear and hook up the boat with a course set for the lake.

Be safe.

Know your surroundings.

Practice caution.

For those waiting for you to come home, please just take care out there.

© The Outlook

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