Creek foils recovery mission

The body of a missing Kelowna man in Monashee Creek near Cherryville may never come out of the water.

The body of a missing Kelowna man in Monashee Creek near Cherryville may never come out of the water.

Search and rescue personnel from Vernon, Salmon Arm and Kelowna spotted the body in a logjam on Sunday, but when they went to retrieve the body, the power of the creek had other ideas.

“In order to do the extraction, they had to move a tree out of the way, and when they did that, an entire creek bank, probably 12-to-15 feet long by eight-feet high, just caved into the water,” said Vernon Search and Rescue search manager Leigh Pearson.

The body of Scott Lawler, 20, ended up going into a hole in the creek estimated to be about 10-to-12 feet deep, followed by some incredibly large rocks.

“One of our swift water members sells rocks for a living, so he knows rocks, and he estimated the boulders, about six-to-eight of them, were in excess of 500 pounds, and there were a couple in the neighbourhood of one ton that came down,” said Pearson.

“The water is flowing class three or four rapid (approximately 30 km/hour with white water and big standing waves). The entire creek, which averages about 30-to-40 feet across, at that point in the canyon the water funnels through a section that is five-to-six feet, so all of that water has to go somewhere and it’s building up steam.

“The body is underneath some rocks. It’s a heartbreaker and I know it’s heartbreaking for the crew. We were so close.”

Lawler was hiking with friend Daniel Lovegrove, 21, of Peachland, on Aug. 13 one kilometre northwest of the Gold Panner Campground when both men fell down an embankment.

Lawler was swept into the creek. Lovegrove died at the scene from injuries suffered in his fall.

The area where rescue crews have to go to search for the man can’t be accessed by vehicles other than ATVs, and that only gets personnel close to the site.

“Where we have to search, we have to use rope systems to rappel people down into the canyon, a distance of about 200 feet,” said Pearson. “Getting any equipment in there is impossible.”

Asked if moving the rocks to get to the body can be accomplished, Pearson said he honestly didn’t think so.

“They broke a steel pipe pole trying to pry rocks out of the way, broke it completely in half. You don’t know what the creek is going to do,” he said. “Moving water is a live beast that can do some amazing things. It may just take one of these boulders to get moved, everything will let go and we’re back and running again. But who knows?

Rescue crews told RCMP they are confident the body is that of the missing hiker, and not that of a missing 31-year-old Vernon man, who is also believed to have fallen into the creek at almost the same location on the May long weekend.

The water has come down approximately six feet in the creek since the May long weekend, and asked if the missing Vernon man’s body could be in the same hole as the Kelowna man, Pearson said possibly.

“The fact the water’s come down six feet, give or take a couple of inches, that’s an unbelievable amount of water,” he said. “Back in May, the creek was flowing at double the speed it is now, so who knows? He could be anywhere. Water is relentless. You can’t fight it.”

RCMP had the task of delivering the news to the Kelowna victim’s family, some of whom were on site and can now fully understand what search and rescue is up against in terms of water and geography.

“I have a lot respect for the dedicated men and women in this area of the province who give so graciously of their time to train, then go out to search and rescue people around this province under some of the worst conditions and circumstances,” said Vernon RCMP spokesperson Gord Molendyk.

Rescue crews were going to take a couple of days to rest from the tiring weekend excursion, then re-assess the situation.