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Tight-knit village mourns on shores of B.C. lake where four canoeists drowned

NEW DENVER, B.C. - A sacred fire will burn for four days on the shores of a cold and deep southeastern British Columbia lake to honour the lives of four "Kootenay Kids" who died in a weekend canoe accident.

Close friends were holding a round-the-clock vigil for the woman and three men who died after their boat flipped Saturday as they returned from an outing on Slocan Lake near the mountain village of New Denver.

Lily Harmer-Taylor, 19, died despite resuscitation attempts. A recovery operation was underway Monday for 15-year-old Jule Wiltshire-Padfield, 21-year-old Hayden Kyle and 19-year-old Skye Donnet, whose bodies never surfaced.

Between 50 and 60 residents gathered to mourn on the lakeside Sunday for an emotional spiritual ceremony as the sun set behind the mountains.

The residents held hands and preformed a First Nations smudging, or cleansing ceremony, with sage and burned tobacco, said resident and friend Isaac Carter.

He said the crew had been dubbed the Kootenay Kids after the West Kootenay region where they lived.

"Fearless. That's about it. They were fearless kids and they experienced life to its fullest, without a doubt," said Carter, 24.

He said teenage friends closest to the canoeists set candles adrift in the water and planned to go on feeding the fire under the watch of community elders.

"It's actually the kids who are doing this. Even just keeping a fire going for four days, it shows, I think, they're going to have a newfound respect for death," he said.

The ceremony also included intense chanting by a Cree man and the singing of a death song by a Jewish woman in Aramaic, he added.

Carter said there was no sense in trying to find someone to blame.

"We've all done it. We live on the lake, we play on the lake. It's that one time," he said. "The weather changes here by the minute and everything went wrong at one moment and we will never know what happened. We will have to deal with that."

"Something went wrong" about 5:30 p.m. Saturday when the four were paddling about 150 metres off shore near the historic Molly Hughes mine, according to the BC Coroners Service.

Passersby noticed the group in trouble and sought help, but when emergency crews arrived they found Harmer-Taylor unconscious near the canoe. She was rushed to hospital, but could not be revived with "aggressive resuscitative events."

On Monday, an RCMP dive team was searching for the bodies of the three males in one-degree Celsius waters near the site of where the canoe was located.

Sgt. Darryl Little said eight divers were involved in the mission after an aerial search of the lake and shoreline turned up no clues.

"The community is very devastated," Little said. "They are a tight-knit community so they're leaning on each other for support and trying to weather through this terrible tragedy."

Friends posted tributes and notes of sympathy on Facebook, alongside photos of people drumming and crafting memorial wreaths on the banks of the lake.

"Another angel taken too soon," wrote a poster identified as Kyra Krohman on her own Facebook page, about Kyle. "Known for your constant upbeat nature and big smile you will not be forgotten."

Only hours before the incident, Kyle had posted his own message on Facebook: "Make sure you remember tomorrow for it is important."

Mayor Ann Bunka of the village of New Denver thanked search and rescue crews for their efforts and said residents were focusing on supporting the families and friends of the four canoeists.

"This is a close-knit community that rallies together in times of need, and never has this been more apparent," she said.

"The outpouring of assistance to do whatever is needed is a trademark of this community and at times of loss is a reminder of why we live here."

Grief counsellors were available at the village high school, where one of the canoeists was to graduate in a few weeks.

Police have said the canoeists were not wearing life jackets but the water is so frigid that they would not have survived in it for long.

RCMP and the BC Coroners Service are investigating.

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