Night was closing in as a group of kayakers huddled around their fallen friend Dr. Mark Heard.
A large bonfire blazed beside his cold wet body as he struggled for life. It was keeping him warm and it would guide the rescue helicopter in.
Nearby Heard’s 19-year-old son Jamie kept watch over his father, trying to push the memory of the accident away, but it hovered like the shadows that danced round the fire.
The day, May 10, had started out well for the group of eight expert kayakers from around B.C. and Alberta. It was their second run that day, the first day of their kayaking road trip. This time they chose the challenging but commonly used waters of Callaghan Creek, a Class 5 river, just south of Whistler.
The first pod of four kayakers, which included Heard, a renowned orthopedic surgeon who has repaired the knees of Canadian Olympians and many others, headed down the river.
They came to a notorious feature called The Cave, a hydraulic-fed small waterfall. In high water it is no big deal, but when the water is low it can be treacherous.
Despite his best efforts Heard was sucked into the cave, forced underwater and unable to roll up again, so he did the only thing he could: he got out of his kayak.
Then he was faced with a churning wall of water pushing him deeper into the cave and back under. The only way out was to drag himself hand over hand along the cave wall against the current to the entrance of the cave.
But it was too much.
For five minutes his friends watched for him to come out from behind the waterfall. Instead they saw his facedown body in the waters about 200 metres below the falls. The Cave kept Heard’s kayak standing vertically underwater until it was pulled out Friday by local paddler Steve Whittall, who was hosting all the paddlers at his house for the weeklong holiday.
“(Heard) floated out of The Cave, face down and unconscious and not breathing, basically dead,” said Whittall, a Whistler Search and Rescue volunteer who helped organize Heard’s rescue.
“The first (kayak) rescuer got him to shore and immediately started doing CPR. They couldn’t tell if there was a pulse, but he definitely wasn’t breathing.”
After about 10 breaths Heard struggled to breath on his own. But he needed help. The second pod of kayakers, which had two doctors with it, arrived on the scene and set to work to keep Heard breathing until help could arrive.