By Dick Hughes, special to Marion County
Even first responders and expert swimmers gasp when they venture into Oregon's snow-fed streams, rivers and lakes at this time of year.
"The best description everybody says is, 'I jumped in the water and it immediately took my breath away,'" said Marion County Deputy Sheriff Dave Zahn.
As more Marion County parks open to the public on May 1, first responders are urging Oregonians to be wary around the water.
"May's water conditions are frigid," said Marion County Sheriff's Sgt. Matt Wilkinson. And when it's hot outside, "Everyone runs to the river to cool off."
"The water is pure snowmelt. For even the strongest swimmers, it can shock them and cramp their muscles and cause them to drown."
Deputy Zahn uses this exercise to teach children about the escalating effects of cold water: Put nuts and bolts in a bucket of ice water. Try to put the nuts and bolts together while keeping your hands in the water. Within minutes, the task becomes increasingly harder as your hands lose dexterity and the cold zaps your strength.
Every year, Marion County experiences one or two drownings and several near-drownings. That is why it's important to always swim with a buddy, use life jackets and make an emergency plan before you start your outing. Being well-prepared makes it less likely that something will go wrong and increases your survival chances if something does.
Parks open to public
Among the Marion County parks opening May 1 are ones on the Little North Fork of the Santiam River and on the North Santiam itself: Minto, Niagara, North Fork and Salmon Falls. Bear Creek Park and Campground will open later in May.
Also opening are Aumsville Ponds on Bates Road SE near Aumsville; Bonesteele Park on Aumsville Highway SE; Spong's Landing on the Willamette River north of Keizer; and Scotts Mills Park.
Open year-round are Packsaddle Park on the North Santiam; Rogers Wayside near Silverton; and Auburn, Denny, Eola Bend, Joryville, Labish Village and Parkdale parks in the Salem area.
Cold water even on hot days
"Spring rivers are cold," said Josh Weathers, recreation manager for the Detroit and Sweet Home ranger districts of the Willamette National Forest. "A lot of people seem to forget that."
The North Santiam River never warms up, because it's fed by water from the bottom of Detroit Lake. At this time of year, even the Willamette and Columbia rivers are relatively cold.
Cold water can cause shock in one minute and incapacitate a person within 10 minutes.
Plan for the unexpected
On hot days, many popular cooling-off spots are out of cell-phone range, which underscores the importance of having a safety plan. Emergency phones are located on North Fork Road at the entrance of Salmon Falls Park and at the Elkhorn Fire Department, 32788 North Fork Road SE, Lyons.
Deputy Zahn said to think ahead for how you'll handle a water emergency. If someone is struggling, don't jump in unless you're trained in life saving and an expert swimmer; otherwise, the person could pull you under. Unfortunately, the would-be rescuer often is who drowns.
Instead, Zahn said, remember to "Reach, Row or Throw." Reach out to the struggling person with a long stick or pole, row to the person if you're in a boat, or throw something – even an empty, closed cooler – that a person can use to stay afloat.
As for life jackets, think of them like bike helmets. You might think they don't look cool, but they can save your life – and there's never time at the last moment to put them on. Wear them when you're around water, including boating – especially if you're not a strong swimmer and in excellent shape.
"Last year was one of our deadliest summers," Sgt. Wilkinson said. "Taking these precautions could save a life."
WATER SAFETY TIPS
- Remember that you're in the outdoors. If you were hiking in Oregon, you would never go alone. You would always make an emergency plan, inform friends and family, and follow that plan. Treat water outings the same way, including always swimming with a buddy.
- Keep a constant eye on children, even if they are a distance from the water.
- Life jackets are a good idea for everyone and especially for inexperienced, weak or non-swimmers. Wearing a life jacket while in or on the water is as important as wearing a seat belt while driving in a car or wearing a helmet while riding your bike or motorcycle. According to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, drowning is the leading cause of death in nearly 75 percent of boating related fatalities and 84 percent of those who drowned were not wearing life jackets.
- Choose swimming areas carefully, and heed "No swimming" signs.
- These are natural creeks and rivers, with constantly changing conditions, which means wading is less exciting but far safer than jumping or diving. Don't jump into water unless you can clearly see the bottom, have measured the depth and have ensured there are no obstacles.
- Never wade or swim upstream of a waterfall or rapids.
- River banks, logs and rocks may be slippery at any time of year.
- Keep an eye upstream for logs and other debris. Swift currents can send rocks tumbling along the river bottom as well.
- The U.S. Forest Service advises: "If you fall into fast-moving water, do not try to stand up. The force of the water will push you over and hold you under. Most drownings result from getting a leg or ankle caught in an underwater rock ledge, between boulders or snagged in tree limbs or other debris. (Lie) on your back with your feet pointing downstream and toes pointing up toward the surface. Always look downstream and be prepared to fend off rocks with your feet."
- Stay hydrated and use sunblock.
- Learn CPR, hope you never have to use it, but be prepared in case you do.
Reminder: Park legally so you can focus on your activities instead of worrying about being cited (or towed).
There is a $5 daily parking fee along North Fork Road and in Marion County parks accessed from North Fork Road, including North Fork Park, Salmon Falls Park, Bear Creek Park day use parking and Lomker's Bridge day use area. Fee stations are along the road. A $30 North Fork Corridor Annual Parking Pass also can be purchased at a fee station or from Marion County Public Works.
Sources: Marion County Sheriff's Office, Marion County Public Works, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Forest Service, Safe Kids Oregon, Washington State Parks Boating Program