When community relations manager Debra Saunders was working on bios for the Summerland Seniors Village newsletter, she spent significant time interviewing Les Johnson, a long-time Summerlander who had recently celebrated a milestone birthday.
In conclusion to her interview, she asked if there was any other life experience he’d like to share.
Yes, he had saved two people from drowning. It’s something he seldom talks about.
It was Dec.18, 1988, about 2 p.m., when he was driving with his wife and kids on Highway 97 between Summerland and Penticton after a day of Christmas shopping.
“There were no barriers up at that time,” he recalled in a phone conversation.
“The people in front of us drove right off the highway — an elderly couple — it was snowing, they went right into the lake. The car floated a little bit, it maybe went out 150 feet from the shore as it sank and it slowly went down. They couldn’t even get their seatbelts off.”
Without hesitation, he jumped into the frigid water of Okanagan Lake hoping to rescue the two.
To paraphrase a lengthy conversation — he vividly remembers every detail — he used a rock to smash the back window and a rope that someone brought from shore and was able to pull the couple out.
A large crowd had gathered (this was in the days before cellphones) and civilians were able to resuscitate the couple once they were safely out of the water.
“The people took over from there. I got in the car and told my wife, ‘take me home, I’m cold and wet.’ Everything happened so fast, I didn’t realize how cold the water was. I was surprised how deep the lake was. Other wanted to help, but they didn’t know how to swim.
“It shows the character of our town, the kind of people that we are. Everybody did whatever they could do to help.”
He was in his late 40s at the time and worked for the District of Summerland as a linesman.
“They (authorities) didn’t know who I was and the police put an ad on the radio. I went down to the station and turned myself in. They were quite pleased to see me. The nicest thing was the gratitude from people. People who
didn’t even know me came up to thank me,” he said, fighting back tears.
He met the couple again at an event presented by the District, which arranged for them to be there.
“They were very thankful. That day was the end for them, but by luck, I just happened to come along.”
He said the lesson for everyone is “learn how to swim, you never know when you will need it.”
Les grew up on the Bow River in Calgary, not far from a beautiful swimming area. He also swam at a pool called The Crystals, owned by a man he remembers as Mr. Baxter.
Appropriately enough, or perhaps by coincidence, he was later a trustee for nine years with the old Summerland District 77 School Board. During his time, the aquatics centre was built.
“In a lot of ways, I think Summerland was ahead of Penticton. Summerland was a leader in computers, a lot of districts didn’t have them back then. Bill Atkinson was a big part of its success. I always felt that if you put a bit of money into equipment, the kids will use it and they did.”
His heroic day 33 years ago wasn’t the only time he would experience the freezing water of Okanagan Lake. He’s also participated in at least one Polar Bear Swim.
“That is cold because you have time to think about how cold the water really is.”
James Miller is managing editor of The Penticton Herald. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org