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  • Writer's pictureHannah Sabourin

Swim party’s over

The municipality of La Pêche could ban swimming at the Wakefield covered bridge as early as June 6.

During a May 2 council meeting, La Pêche councillors, along with Mayor Guillaume Lamoureux, drafted a bylaw to prohibit swimming at the popular swimming rocks near the covered bridge. The decision follows a recent coroner's report, which recommends the closure following the 2019 drowning death of 22-year-old Najib Chowdhury.

Before drafting the bylaw, council held a public consultation on April 25. At this meeting, La Pêche resident Manon Lafontaine asked officials to define swimming.

Considering the narrow scope of this definition, she said she wondered if the ban eliminates danger.

“Where do you draw the line between swimming and not swimming?” asked Lafontaine. “For example, if a kayaker stops at the rocks for lunch, they could slip, fall into the water and get pulled down by the current.”

Lamoureux responded that he aims to prohibit people from the specific act of swimming. Otherwise, for the safety of boaters, he said he would like to keep the beach and stairs accessible.

A ring buoy hangs on a piece of wood near Wakefield’s covered bridge. Not far away, strong Gatineau River currents flow through rocks. A foreign exchange student drowned at the bridge in 2019 and the coroner has recommended that the municipality ban swimming at the popular spot. Hannah Sabourin photo

Lafontaine also asked how the municipality plans to enforce the ban. She explained that the jump from the “red bridge” is a rite of passage for youth in the area.

“The tradition of jumping off has existed for years and years. And kids come from all over to do that....You can’t just stop that tradition from existing,” said Lafontaine.

Lamoureux said that locals and visitors would need to assume personal responsibility when spending time near the rocks and the rapids. “It would be absurd to block access to a public space,” he said. “Also, we can’t ask someone to constantly survey that area.” Instead, in Lamoureux’s opinion, the bylaw should deter enough people from risking their safety in the river.

“If there are rules, and if we conduct routine inspections, then we are demonstrating reasonable diligence,” said Lamoureux.

According to MRC des Collines Police spokesperson Martin Fournel, officers will enforce the swimming ban once La Pêche adopts the bylaw. Fournel did not reveal what enforcement could look like.

The Low Down spoke to a few river surfers who had brought their boards to the bridge for some gnarly rapids. Surfer David Paquette has been surfing the rapids in the Gatineau River for two years and said he wants continued access to the rocks.

“For sports like surfing, the river is safe if you take precautions,” he said. Otherwise, due to the strong currents, “it is a dangerous place to swim — especially for children.”

According to a report by the Quebec coroner’s office, the Gatineau River near the bridge is shallow and the current is strong. Also, the riverbed is covered with tree trunks, rocks and metal debris. The report states that if the current pulls a swimmer underwater, they could become trapped.

La Pêche council expects to pass the ban on June 6.

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