Stories & Features

BC Hydro biologist uses marine radio to help stranded boater on Williston Reservoir

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A grandfather and grandson were stranded on B.C.'s largest body of water after their boat began taking on water. A BC Hydro biologist and some students working at the reservoir were able to rescue the stranded duo in the incident that happened in early August.

New radio system on Williston leads to rescue of 10-year-old boy and his grandfather

With the first call for help, Randy Zemlak knew trouble was brewing.

Zemlak was on Williston Reservoir, west of Hudson's Hope in the Peace Reach, helping collect fish for sampling with students from Carleton University. And light was failing when the call came in.

"I received a faint distress call as folks knew [our boat] the Williston Ranger was around," recalls Zemlak of the incident in early August. "I could hear someone calling sporadically on the radio."

The calls from the family of the missing boaters were made on the new Williston VHF Marine Radio system, installed in 2013 by BC Hydro to improve boater safety.  It's a requirement of BC Hydro's water licence and an outcome of the Peace Water Use Plan.

Listening in from Mackenzie, Vicki Podgorenko was able to get more info related to the SOS and alerted Randy. A 10-year-old boy and his grandfather were missing. They had no radio, but their family was expecting them back and they hadn’t returned. It was the family who called for assistance from the Portage Mountain Yacht Club (PMYC) site near Hudson’s Hope.  

"That's when we decided to pack up and help look for them," said Zemlak, whose crew figured out that the stranded boat was about 11 km away at a fishing spot locally known as Hole in the Wall.

'Their boat was full of water'

With darkness now growing, the Williston Ranger made its way east along B.C.'s largest water body – created with the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in 1968 – as quickly as its crew dared. But urgency drove them onward.

"We have safe work procedures for this, but it's not an everyday occurrence. Daylight was meagre," Zemlak recalls. "Luckily the grandfather did a good job flagging us down from shore at 10 Mile Point, not at the expected fishing spot. We managed to bring them on board as they clearly had boat issues and were tied up against a steep slope. Their boat was full of water."

About a half hour after they recovered the grateful pair, a boat from the yacht club (also dispatched to search) motored over. Zalmak's crew passed the grandfather and grandson over to the other boat, safe and sound.

"The Carleton University crew did well with spotting and helping. Vicki (our safety check in monitor) was great too," he added.

The Williston Ranger crew then trawled back to their sampling work. "I guess that gives the Ranger two rescues to its credit!" said Zelmak. Back when the marine radio system was still being tested, it aided in the rescue of another boater.

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New signage spreads word about Williston VHF Marine Radio

While strength and coverage varies at times and by location, the Williston VHF Marine Radio – channels 83 and 84 – uses four mountaintop repeaters and two microwave sites at locations around the reservoir to provide nearly complete coverage on Williston and Dinosaur reservoirs and further down the Peace River to about Taylor.

GM Shrum Generating Station CPC technician Steve Twa keeps the system maintained. P&C Telecom senior engineer Shiran Seneviratne and consultant Ernie Friesen were the system's designers.

"We're trying to increase awareness and broaden the network of Williston VHF Marine Radio system users," says Peace Water Licence Requirements manager Julie Fournier. "Rolling out improved signage will help recreational boaters understand the importance of using marine channels 83 and 84."

Get more information about the Williston Marine Radio system on our Williston recreation area page.

Carleton students were tracking fish

The Carleton University students were at Williston to track fish movements through GM Shrum Generating Station through a federally-funded study of entrainment.   

Zemlak has local knowledge of the area and was the boat captain as part of a reciprocal agreement where BC Hydro gets the study results to better understand impacts on fish.