A young man believed drowned in southern Alberta this weekend had jumped off a cliff into the Highwood River before eventually being swept away, investigators believe.
According to RCMP Cpl. Chantelle Kelly, the man jumped into the river from a ledge on Sunday evening and wasn’t wearing a life-jacket. It’s believed he was not a strong swimmer.
The young man has been identified by family as 22-year-old Lual Ayach. RCMP said Ayach was there as part of a Canada Day celebration.
When Ayach jumped into the river, three people jumped in after him to try to rescue him but weren’t successful, Kelley said. There were a number other witnesses on the riverside.
Kelly said RCMP victims services is being made available to anyone who witnessed the incident and those who tried to help.
RCMP said alcohol is not believed to be a factor in the drowning.
Search crews were back on the river on Monday morning, including a dive team. Crews are focusing on the area between Nature’s Hideaway and the Bow River.
Ayach’s aunt, Sarah, told reporters on Monday that it was unlike her nephew to have jumped into the river when he wasn’t an experienced swimmer.
“He doesn’t swim,” she said. “Like myself, I don’t swim. There’s no way that I would think that I would swim there. So I don’t accept it that he did.”
Sarah said her nephew was known as being a caretaker in his family. One of eight children, he also had strong bonds with his cousins, who often called him a brother.
“My wish is to find his body,” Sarah said.
“I’m hopeless. They were like my kids. I have one son, 16 years old, and he [would] always say, ‘I have brothers.’ He called them brothers because they were always there for him. So right now, I’m hopeless.”
According to RCMP, the Nature’s Hideaway area is popular for swimming and cliff jumping. Investigators said with the recent rise in water levels, the river has been strong and turbulent.
“We typically come out here once a year for a drowning and it’s a very unfortunate spot,” Foothills Fire Department Chief Jim Smith said. “We know when we get the call, it’s a very unfortunate place.”
Smith said the geography of the cliff and the water below is making search efforts difficult.
“There’s a big cavern there and we’re just trying to get ropes and stuff in there to try and see if the individual is stuck in there,” Smith said.
“The undertow here is so bad that even the scuba divers won’t go in because the undertow is so bad for them and they’ve got all the right equipment on.”
Smith said the water is about 25 to 30 feet deep and very swift.
‘Dead silence’ following drowning incident
Natasha Koenning, who works at Nature’s Hideaway, said all of the excitement left the campground after the young man went missing.
“The campground was all full of excitement and then all of a sudden it went dead silence, and it was dead silence pretty much since then,” Koenning said.
She added that people often head to the cliff and do “daring jumps” into the river.
Camper Bruce Macleod said families were crying on the banks of the river on Sunday night after the man jumped in.
“As adults, we say, ‘Don’t go in there, don’t go in there,’ but the kids are all going in there,” he said. “It should be sort of restricted.”
Previous deaths at Nature’s Hideaway campground
A 19-year-old man was swept away in the Highwood River in June 2014 after falling into the water near the campground.
At the time, investigators said Justin McNeil got caught in the current and was swept away in the high and fast-moving river.
In June 2010, a 28-year-old man went missing while swimming in the river’s fast-flowing, murky waters.
A 28-year-old man died while cliff jumping in the popular swimming spot in July 2007 when the current swept him beneath the surface.
Herbert Lake search
RCMP said Monday the search for a man presumed drowned in Herbert Lake, north of Lake Louise, is also continuing with divers expected to get into the water in the morning.
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Emergency crews were called to the lake at shortly after 7 p.m. on Sunday for reports of a possible drowning after a man is believed to have fallen off a paddle board.
Emergency crews searched the lake for the man in his 20s but weren’t able to find him and the search was eventually called off for the night.
“It appears right now that the person was not wearing a life-jacket or was not a strong swimmer,” RCMP Sgt. Gerald Walker said on Monday.
A dive team from Parks Canada Visitor Safety was in the lake on Monday and ground searches are being conducted around the lake in an attempt to find the young man’s body.
Walker said Herbert Lake is a popular area for people to swim and do other water activities because it’s warmer than others in the area.