Mitchell Pawluk is one of the 18 tubers whose actions on the Pembina River this summer required help from search and rescue crews and spurred RCMP to issue a safety reminder.
The 18-year-old and four of his friends decided to spend the day in Pembina on July 12.
“We didn’t go through the tubing company,” Pawluk admitted. “We thought that we could do it ourselves because we’re not the smartest individuals.
“We got on where you’re supposed to get off, apparently. We floated for about five minutes and we saw a sign that said: ‘Caution! Last chance for tubers to take off’… We tubed down for roughly… four hours.
“We thought for the first two or three hours that we were fine… after three hours passed was when we started to realize, OK, we’re lost.”
No one brought cellphones, worried they would get wet. One of the teenagers’ father was waiting at the park and, when the group didn’t return after three hours, called RCMP.
After four hours floating on the river, the group spotted a trail leading into the brush. They followed it, hoping it would lead them to a road or a house.
“Half of us hadn’t been in the bush before,” Pawluk said. “All of us grew up in Edmonton. None of us had been in Pembina before… It was a three-mile hike and it was roughly three hours. It was long, most of us were wearing flip flops… We got to a road and it was a farmer’s house and then we just asked to borrow his phone and call off the search and rescue.”
After a spike of search and rescue operations along the Pembina River, RCMP and Alberta Parks are issuing a public safety reminder to potential tubers.
Over the last five years, Evansburg RCMP have investigated 17 reports of groups missing along the river involving a total of 60 people. Everyone has been found safe with just one case of hypothermia reported.
“Eighteen of those are from this year alone and we’re just early into the tubing season,” RCMP Const. Brandon Tobin said on Tuesday.
“The numbers are quite high and… that’s why we’re issuing this media release. If people use the tubing company, they’re very responsible and they provide an orientation to their customers to get out at the Pembina Provincial Park,” Tobin explained.
“But often or not, it’s people that don’t use the services provided by the tubing company so as a result — it’s a popular summer activity — we get groups of people go past the Pembina park and go missing.”
The RCMP were called about Pawluk and his friends, who went tubing and lost their way on July 12.
“They didn’t have any cellphones and we conducted some patrols, however we didn’t locate them,” Tobin said. “So, as a result, we called out our helicopter which also patrolled the river north of Sangudo, which also didn’t turn up any results. So, we called Fish and Wildlife and Parkland Search and Rescue. We got a call from the complainant later who advised us the missing youth were located at a residence and had used their phone to call.”
The RCMP is encouraging residents and visitors to enjoy outdoor activities in the area, but are reminding them to be responsible for their safety and plan ahead.
“Sometimes we’ll get complaints from parks people that see the people trapped across the river,” Tobin said. “Other times, we’ll get complaints from the people themselves. For instance, here on the 13th, we had a complaint from a person that her and her family were stuck on the Pembina River and unable to scale the cliff. Some of them had no shoes and some were getting cold. As you can see, if there’s children involved, this is a pretty dangerous situation.
“Once they go past that park, they’re effectively in a canyon and they have about seven hours to go on the water before the next camping area where the next exit spot exists,” Tobin said. “And if they miss that, then they’re stuck on the river for 14 hours to Sangudo.”
Watch below: On July 16, 2014, Edmonton police’s Air 1 helicopter rescued seven people stranded while rafting on the Pembina River. Courtesy: EPS
Pawluk knows he and his friends were foolish and didn’t prepare nearly as well as they should have.
“All of us were definitely freaked out a lot walking back… The sun’s setting… if the sun sets and we’re here for the night, it will be pitch black… None of us had any survival skills or anything.
“The hike back is where we got a little nervous because we saw a sign warning of cougars and mountain lions in the area… It was a long three-mile hike so we had a lot of time to think about how we got there. We were thinking, ‘Oh man, we’re so dumb.’ The most common thought we were thinking on the hike was… ‘Man, my mom’s going to be so angry.'”
An RCMP vehicle and an Alberta Parks vehicle picked the teens up from the farmhouse and brought them back to the provincial park.
“Thankfully, we’re all OK,” Pawluk said.
Watch below: An Edmonton teen is sharing his story after he and a group of friends got lost on the Pembina River. It comes as RCMP issue a warning after being called out to help 18 people so far this year. Kim Smith reports.
Officials are asking anyone planning to tube down the river to take the following steps to be prepared:
- Know the area, review maps and understand how long your journey will take
- Notify a responsible person where you are going, who you are with, and the route you plan on taking
- Dress appropriately for the weather, including use of a wet suit when necessary
- Wear a life jacket
- Avoid consuming alcohol
- Bring a cell phone and store it properly for the conditions
When police or parks staff have to respond to a river call, it means those resources aren’t available for other emergencies.
“Search and rescue operations of this magnitude pull emergency resources away from a number of agencies and these occurrences are certainly preventable with appropriate planning and preparedness,” RCMP Sgt. Brian Topham said.
“When we use our helicopter or EPS Air 1, which has assisted us in the past, or STARS or Parkland County Fire Services, it takes away those resources from other front-line situations that they might be needed in,” Tobin added.
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Officers are reminding people that the Pembina River is a wilderness area. It is not patrolled or easily accessed by emergency crews. Anyone heading out on the river should know where they’re going and make basic survival preparations.
Being unprepared, and being on the river for a long period of time, can result in hypothermia, heat exposure, and dehydration, among other potential hazards.
On average in the summer, Evansburg RCMP respond to a few calls each week to help search for lost tubers.
For his part, Pawluk has learned a few important lessons.
“One — don’t be dumb like me and my friends were. Go with the rafting company, especially if it’s your first time in Pembina. Don’t assume you can do it yourself, because you’re wrong.
“Also, just keep more of a watchful eye for signs and try and look into the meaning of them.”