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This article was published 23/5/2017 (1252 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The last of the winter ice had finally melted, marking a late start to spring on the Burntwood River in Thompson.
Shane Cripps, an avid outdoorsman, and his buddy Conor Sykes, were psyched to get on the water and Victoria Day dawned bright and sunny with barely any wind.
Early that morning, Cripps, 44, his son Dylan, 14, joined up with Sykes, 33, and his son Liam, 6, for some father-son bonding. The four slipped a canoe into the wide part of the river on the east side of the causeway off Highway 391 and set out on the water, the first boating trip of the season.
Sykes had told his wife Lindsay, at home with their toddler Annabelle, to expect them back at noon.
Cripps, after all, had spent 25 years in Thompson. Experienced in the outdoors and a good sport fisherman, he had the gear for the lifestyle.
Cripps and his family, two boys and wife Li, run the Thompson Lodge and Ecotourism Centre. The Cripps family home is on riverfront property. They had all kinds of boats, including motorboats and, of course, canoes.
Noon came and went. Cripps' wife Li would later remember taking a call from Sykes wife’ Lindsay sometime that afternoon, wondering where the boys were.
"They left early in the morning. Conor’s wife called me in a panic in the afternoon and said they were supposed to be back at noon. When she told me that, I got worried and scared," Cripps’ widow told the Free Press.
"We called the RCMP and she put a post on Facebook, asking for help."
RCMP acted quickly, organizing a search of the water at the causeway, a strip of highway that bridges part of the Burntwood River which funnels into a narrow channel north of Thompson.
Thompson Fire and Emergency responded, sending paramedics in wet-suits to the site where the four had slipped their canoe into the water. Manitoba Hydro responded with a helicopter to put an eye in the sky. Others, as anxious as the Cripps and the Sykes had been to get on the water, spotted the search teams and joined in.
RCMP said one of those private boats found the four bodies, each was wearing a life-jacket, not far from a capsized canoe at about 6:30 p.m.
"We were hoping they were stranded by the shore, but then the worse news came and they were discovered," Cripps’ widow said from the family’s lodge. She said the family was still coming to grips with the tragedy.
"We don’t know exactly what happened. We’re all trying to digest it," Cripps said.
Her remaining son, James Cripps, 18, told a reporter he’s devastated and described the feeling of losing his father and brother as "surreal."
"It just feels like your entire world crashes down on you," he said Tuesday.
He said he looked up to his father.
"My dad was my hero, obviously. He’s everything I aspired to be as a man when I grew up. He taught me so many lessons. He’s been there for everything," he said.
"He was just an awesome, awesome guy. All families have their disagreements at times, but he never hesitated to tell me that he’d be there for me."
He said his brother Dylan was his best friend and he remembers being there to catch his little brother when he was just learning to walk. Later, they loved to play hockey together.
If ever the brothers had a big fight, everything would be fine the next day, he said.
He remembered one time when his dad fell into the water when their canoe tipped on a lake. He was able to swim back to the boat and get back in and everyone had a good laugh about it.
"Any time someone falls in the water, everything’s OK, you’re going to laugh about it after," Cripps said.
"This time they weren’t."
Conor’s wife, Lindsay Sykes, posted the news of the tragedy, along with a family snapshot of her husband and son, on Facebook under the caption: "Loves of my life."
Friends replied with condolences. "There are no words. I’m so sorry. Thinking of you and Annabelle," read one response. Annabelle is Liam’s younger sister.
Dennis Fenske, mayor of Manitoba’s most northern city some 740 kilometres north of Winnipeg, said the community is reeling from the shock of the four deaths.
The two families are well known. The local school division dispatched trauma teams to the schools the two boys attended to conduct grief counselling. Both local schools lowered their flags to half-mast Tuesday morning.
The city’s own team of grief counsellors was working with local firefighters and paramedics.
At city hall Tuesday night, the council expected to open their regular meeting with a statement, something Fenske was working on Tuesday when he took a call from the Free Press.
"They were well respected in the community. Young families, very involved in the community, involved in minor sports, and in Mr. Cripps case, in the arts," Fenske said.
Cripps owned two restaurants in addition to the family lodge. He ran a concession stand at a community centre and the Thompson Citizen reported that he was active in the local artists co-operative. A martial arts competition he was helping to plan was hastily put off Tuesday.
Both were typical northern families, hardworking and committed to their community, the mayor said. That included a love of water.
Until the police investigation is finished, nobody knows what happened to turn the canoe trip into a tragic nightmare. But the frigid temperature of the water probably had something to do with it, the mayor suggested.
Fenske said last weekend was the first weekend the ice had gone from the lakes and the water temperature would have been around 3 to 4 Celsius.
"I know that our fire paramedics were responding in wet-suits and their hands were numb within 10 minutes," he said.
"It’s been a late spring for us, and people are interested in getting on the water as quick as they can. Being in the north, you know the conditions. In some cases, you assume a certain amount of risk. In some cases, it’s not the best decision," Fenske said.
In Winnipeg, word of the tragedy had water-safety experts dusting off tips, the kind printed on the website for Professor Popsicle’s Cold Water Boot Camp. Professor Popsicle is the University of Manitoba's extreme-weather expert, Gordon Giesbrecht.
"The average life expectancy for someone in those waters is about an hour to two hours if they are wearing a life-jacket and they can keep their face above water," said Lifesaving Society of Manitoba spokesman Chris Love, one of Giesbrecht's boot camp partners. "Most people are surprised by that."
The first one to three minutes are crucial; someone whose boat is swamped or capsized will go into immediate shock and start hyperventilating, but if they keep their heads above water, they could survive. Hypothermia doesn’t set in immediately. And, sadly, said Love, some 40 to 50 per cent of all drownings happen within three metres of shore.
with files from Canadian Press
Updated on Tuesday, May 23, 2017 at 1:31 PM CDT: Removes erroneous map
4:17 PM: Adds identities of victims.
7:43 PM: Full write through and edit
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