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In the heart of Mara Lake: Family and dive team reflect on recovery of drowned Alberta man

John Planaden called Sicamous a second home, was part of community for more than 30 years
John Planaden (centre, grey shirt) treasured this photo of his family, which he loved dearly. His daughter, Stacey Weiland, said everyone in this photo had spent 10 days in Sicamous with Planaden before he drowned on Aug. 11, 2021. (Photo contributed)

“They’re very well trained, very smart, and some of the hardest working individuals I’ve ever met.”

That’s what the children of a man who drowned in Mara Lake had to say about the team that recovered their father’s body.

John Planaden of Red Deer, Alta., was 64 when he drowned near Sicamous Aug. 11.

Planaden’s daughter, Stacey Weiland, and son, Shaun Planaden, said their father considered Sicamous a second home. He owned a property at Grandview Shores for 15 years, and had been part of the community for 30-plus years.

Planaden would spend May to September in Sicamous with his wife, Sandra Planaden. A favourite activity with family and friends was having dinner on the lake.

From Aug. 13 to 15, the RCMP South East District Water Recovery Team (URT) searched the Turtle Bay area of Mara Lake for Planaden’s body.

When the police search was unsuccessful, a few of Stacey and Shaun’s friends recommended they reach out to the Hutterian Emergency Response Team (HEART).

A non-profit charitable organization from Manitoba, HEART specializes in underwater search and recovery of drowning victims using trained divers, sonar and remotely operated vehicles.

“From day one, the HEART team was amazing to work with. They dropped everything when we called,” said Shaun.

He said HEART drove more than 18 hours, almost in one go, to get to Sicamous.

Paul Maendel is the co-captain of HEART. He said two specialized pieces of equipment were critical in finding Planaden’s body.

The first was a side-scan sonar that the team towed behind their boat, about 10 feet from the bottom of the lake. The team searched for two full days with no success, due to the wide search area, and lack of information on where the body might be.

Still, the team was able to search efficiently. They have a GPS in their boat that’s usually used for farm applications. It allows them to drive extremely straight for efficient scanning. Maendel said for underwater recoveries, locating the victim is most of the work.

On the third day of HEART’s search, Aug. 20, a breakthrough was made.

Planaden’s family was able to provide HEART with Planaden’s boat’s approximate location at the time of his drowning. They contacted the boat’s manufacturer in Florida, which had the boat’s GPS location logs on record.

Once HEART had an approximate location, the members located Planaden’s body not long after. It was 160 feet down in Mara Lake, beyond the dive limits for HEART — and most dive teams.

Maendel said when he talked to local law enforcement, they told him most bodies in B.C.’s deep lakes can’t be recovered as they are too deep for divers to reach.

That’s why HEART’s second specialized piece of equipment, a remote-operated vehicle (ROV), was so critical.

Tethered to HEART’s boat by a strong cable, and controlled from the surface by a member of the team, the ROV is equipped with sonar.

Its sonar is used to find the exact location of a drowning victim, after the side-scan sonar drastically reduces the search area.

Maendel said Mara Lake had good visibility, and with the ROV’s lights, they could see about five feet in front of it.

The ROV has a manipulator arm that is capable of grabbing onto things. When Planaden was located, HEART was required to contact the RCMP and BC Coroners Service.

Once they did, they successfully recovered the body with help from the strong tethered cable.

Weiland credits her family’s strength for getting through the tough days. At times, they would go out on the water in a boat behind HEART’s boat; she said watching them work was amazing.

The community of Sicamous was unbelievably kind to her family throughout the search, Weiland said.

At the end of each day of searching, Shaun said, HEART would sit down with him and Weiland and go over the day’s events.

“They’d show us videos of what they were doing and how their equipment worked,” said Shaun. “They’d listen to the stories we would tell about Dad; it was nice to have somebody else to talk to.”

Even though their work is done, HEART still keeps in touch with the Planadens. On Sunday, Aug. 29, they called to check up on them and see if they were OK.

As their name suggests, HEART members are from Hutterite communities. In the past, HEART responded to drownings in local Hutterite colonies and used divers to successfully recover bodies.

However, they didn’t start using a ROV until about three years ago. They were called to find two people who had fallen through the ice while snowmobiling. It was too dangerous for divers, so they called in an expert from Minnesota who had a ROV.

When HEART saw how efficient and safe using a ROV was, they fundraised to get their own. Maendel said Hutterite communities helped raise the $160,000 needed to get the ROV they now have. It’s now their primary recovery tool.

Maendel said anyone can be a part of HEART by donating, and HEART has partnered with many businesses as they look to fundraise for new vessels such as a hovercraft for recoveries that must be done on thin ice.

“We believe God provides us with these opportunities to help. If we have the knowledge, technology and skills, we want to help alleviate people’s pain and suffering and bring them closure,” said Maendel.

Shaun said his family wants to support HEART so much and let people know what a good job the team did.

“They’re just a phone call away,” said Shaun.

Read more: Body of Alberta man who drowned in Mara Lake near Sicamous recovered

Read more: Rumours the unvaccinated won’t be served at Sicamous health centre false

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