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Delving into death

Reprinted from The Victoria News, April 4, 2008

UVic author tackles kayaking accident
by Patrick Blennerhassett

In the frigid waters off the Bay of Fundy, June 1, 2002 in the early afternoon, René Arseneault was dying of hypothermia.

The young adventure racer was clinging to the kayak of Boon Kek, literally freezing to death, slipping in and out of consciousness during the The Fundy Multi-Sport Race. The race featured 15 kilometres of trail running, 40 kilometres of mountain biking and 12 kilometres of sea kayaking, an extreme sportsman’s dream in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Arseneault would later be pronounced dead at a local hospital, forever changing the lives of countless people who not only knew him, but the race and the Bay of Fundy. University of Victoria professor David Leach was the managing editor of explore: Canada’s Outdoor Magazine in Toronto when the accident happened, and found himself slowly drawn to the story of Arseneault’s death.

“It was originally going to be a short little report,” said Leach, an assistant professor in the Department of Writing at UVic. “We had just heard a CBC news clip about this kid who had died at this adventure race and the original writer tried to track down information but nobody was talking. So of course as a reporter that makes you more intrigued.”

Leach, an avid outdoorsman who has competed in similar events then decided to pen a lengthy investigative feature into what actually happened. The Bay of Fundy, known for impressive weather shifts, suddenly got too cold and windy, prompting organizers to cancel the kayaking section of the race. But both Kek, a Singapore exchange student and Arseneault, were already out in the water.

“Just the image of these two young men,” said Leach when asked what interested him in the story which turned into the book Fatal Tide: When the race of a lifetime goes wrong. “One was a kid from Singapore who had come as an exchange student because he wanted to experience the Canadian wilderness. And suddenly he’s in this position with this other young, very athletic (Arseneault), a grocery store clerk from New Brunswick who had fallen from his boat in these tumultuous seas in the Bay of Fundy. And they’re being pulled off course in these tides in the storm, so just that image of them struggling together, these two young men put together like this.”

Arseneault would be pulled from the ocean by the fishing vessel D.P. Clipper after close to an hour in the 10°C water, but by then he was already unconscious and CPR attempts were unsuccessful. Leach, who will be formally launching the book April 16 at the UVic bookstore, did extensive interviews with Arseneault’s family, race organizers and Kek himself, who now has to live with the memory of that infamous day.

“He’s somebody I really came to admire because he never blamed anybody but himself,” said Leach. “And he kept sort of going back to the fact of his upbringing in Singapore and how it was very rational and conservative. And that’s kind of how he behaved and that’s what you’re supposed to do in an emergency situation. And I think he just kept wondering ‘What if I had taken a chance, what if I had tried to pull him aboard? What if I had tried to paddle for shore even thought there were these high-cliff walls and they both would have died?’”

Fatal Tide is a dramatized account along the veins of Truman Capote’s genre creating literally non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. Many variables came into play that fateful day in June 2002, and Leach investigated it all, offering insight in the book to everything from the psychology of extreme sports to the medics of hypothermia and fishing culture off the waters of New Brunswick.

“I wanted to help people understand why people do these events and how it sort of opens up your life to new possibilities,” said Leach.

“I also didn’t want it to be an easy answer,” he continued. “Because it wasn’t an easy situation. People pointed fingers, this kid was inexperienced or the organizers didn’t listen to the weather conditions. And I found out it was more complex than that.”

David Leach reads from Fatal Tide: When the race of a lifetime goes wrong on Wednesday, April 16 at the UVic Bookstore. The event starts at 7 p.m.