Police point at the raft, still caught up on the Green Mountain Road bridge over the Okanagan River Channel, where a 20-year-old man drowned. Dustin Godfrey/Western News

Warnings floated for Okanagan River Channel

The Okanagan River Channel has been flowing at a higher rate than normal to drain the lake

Signs were installed along the Okanagan River Channel earlier this week, but a drowning Wednesday afternoon is a more stark reminder for those going for a float to keep safe.

A 20-year-old male drowned after his raft, tied together with others, got caught up on the bridge at Green Mountain Road on Wednesday. Police believe the man was tangled in the rope tying the rafts together, hampering his ability to keep above the water.

Among the warnings firefighters are putting out ahead of the long weekend is to refrain from tying up rafts. One of the more common issues to crop up is a pair of rafts winding up on either side of the bridges support, knocking floaters into the water.

But while they can’t stop people from using the channel, deputy fire chief Chris Forster says it’s preferred that people keep off while the water runs high from the Okanagan down to Skaha Lake.

“Our recommendation has been to try to stay off the channel, because it is flowing higher, but if you are to use it, then obviously you need to take extra precautionary, such as using (personal flotation devices),” he said.

The issue is, he said, the channel float is a popular attraction for long weekends, and the weather is expected to be sunny and hot for the Canada Day long weekend.

For that reason, crews are looking for ways to educate people on how to safely make the float.

The water is expected to be flowing at a high rate for at least a few more weeks, according to Mayor Andrew Jakubeit, who expressed his condolences to the friends and family of the drowning victim.

“It’s always difficult when an accident results in the loss of life. We do live in between two lakes, which is connected by the channel, so people need to be diligent about understanding the risks of water and strong currents,” he said.

“It was a very unfortunate accident to have, and probably very traumatizing for all of those involved.”

Among the other safety issues, officials are warning people to wear flotation devices while the water is flowing at such a high rate, and not to float into Skaha Lake.

“That’s where the currents is actually the worst,” Jakubeit said, noting that’s one of the warnings on the new signs up around the channel.

The new signs were put up earlier this week to specifically deal with the issue of the high water levels in the channel and, on top of aforementioned warnings, notes that water depth in the channel fluctuates, warning people to take caution.

The provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations also put out a warning Thursday that potential floaters take extra precautions this weekend.

“Adults are urged to keep children and pets under close supervision and well away from the river banks,” a government announcement says. “If going into the river, take precautionary measures such as using a safe watercraft and wearing a personal flotation device.”

The government warned that levels “may remain above normal throughout the summer.”

Wednesday’s victim, who has yet to be named, drowned after he and four others floated down the channel with rafts tied together. Approaching the Green Mountain Road bridge, the rafts appeared to have gone on either side of the support piling.

The man reportedly called for help as he was unable to get untangled from the ropes attached to the raft.

The man was rushed to hospital, but was declared dead on arrival.

Coyote Cruises, which operates the shuttle and tube rental service along the channel, is still set to open on Friday, according to its website.

Officials with the company didn’t respond to a request for comment as of deadline.