River Safety Starts with You

It is finally summer, and Oregonians are gearing up for warm weather fun.  The state’s plentiful rivers provide an impeccable environment for aquatic recreation. However, past years have proven the dark, dangerous, and sometimes even deadly side to open water activities, and Oregonians should take extreme caution.   

2020 was the deadliest year for Oregon boaters in decades. 27 total fatalities were reported – one of which was in Benton County. However, 2021 brings a new threat to Oregon’s river-goers. Experts warn that river conditions are extremely hazardous as fallen wildfire debris coats local rivers including the McKenzie, Santiam and Willamette.  

On May 29, rescuers responded to two river incidents on the McKenzie and North Santiam rivers. Both occurrences involved fallen debris.   

In December of 2020, a Eugene father and daughter tragically died in the Willamette River after their paddle boards became entwined with collapsed debris. While it is important to note that the two victims were wearing life jackets, the Oregon Marine Board reminded stand up paddle boarders to take safety precautions a few days following the accident, including wearing a life jacket and investing in quick-release or “breakaway” leashes.   

“There have been four really tragic fatalities in recent years where a person, otherwise well-outfitted, died because their leash to the SUP became entangled in brush or other debris on area rivers,” Marine Board Boating Safety Program Manager Randy Henry told KTVZ.  

Learning to Swim   

Poor swimming ability is a contributing factor in river fatalities each year. A national study by the American Red Cross found that over 50% of people in the United States either do not know how to swim or know too little to swim safely.   

Osborn Aquatics Center Director Todd Wheeler claimed that people who are considered minorities are traditionally at a higher risk of not learning how to swim due to lack of accessible resources.   

“At the city of Corvallis, we strive to create access for all in our community, so we have our Parks and Recreation Scholarship Program that can be used for swimming lessons to reduce barriers in participation in learn-to-swim programs,” said Wheeler.   

You can apply for the Parks and Recreation Scholarship program here, or learn more about Osborn’s swimming lessons here.   

Alcohol and rivers never mix 

 Alcohol is among the main causes of boating and swimming deaths each year. Side note: “boats” include kayaks, canoes, and even rafts. Last January, 20-year-old Michael Wilhite of Bend drowned in the Deschutes River with alcohol being ruled as a contributing factor.  

Operation Dry Water  is a national campaign to end boating under the influence (BUI). Since its inception in 2009, U.S. alcohol-related boating fatalities have decreased.  Benton, Linn, and Marion County Sheriff’s Offices are all among participating Oregon agencies for ODW 2021.   

Life Jackets  

According to the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, the absence of a life jacket is the number one cause of river fatalities. In 2020, 34 out of the 37 river citations given out by the BCSO were due to life jacket non-compliance.   

The BCSO urges even strong swimmers to wear life jackets while on open waters due to frigid river temperatures, strong currents, and obstructions such as fallen logs and trees.   

“Being a strong swimmer is good,” said Lieutenant Toby Bottorff of BCSO, “but everyone has their limits, and the river current has a way of humbling people.” Bottorff added that while swimmers are not required to wear a life jacket if using a pool toy such as an inflatable swim ring, it is still strongly encouraged because such toys can pop easily, leaving the swimmer needing to self-rescue.  

Last summer, Osborne Aquatics Center partnered with the Corvallis Parks and Recreation and the Benton Community Foundation to form the “Life Looks Good On You”  life jacket loaner program. The program provides the public with free life jacket rentals sizes “infant” through “adult XL” so everyone has the opportunity to recreate on the water safely. The program is in full swing for the current summer season and runs on a first come, first serve basis. Life jackets can be picked up Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.  

 CPR Can Save a Life  

A 2018 survey showed that only 54% of Americans claim they are educated in CPR – and even fewer know proper technique.  

In September of 2019, Corvallis teen Luka Schaefers saved the life of a local man who had collapsed on a sidewalk by following his recent training and performing CPR.   

“I’m probably going to be a very different person,” Schaefers told the Red Cross Cascades, “not only because I saved a person’s life, but because I didn’t have to watch somebody die.”  

Although recent CPR guidelines have changed and only require chest compressions, the American Heart Association says that for drowning victims, this rule does not apply due to hypoxia and the need for ventilation. Therefore, they recommend both rescue breaths and chest compressions for drowning victims.   

The American Red Cross now offers six convenient online CPR certification courses. Additionally, Osborn Aquatics Center is holding CPR courses this summer.   

Things to Remember   

With open water always comes inherent risks – even if you do everything right. Other important safety tips include always recreating in groups and never panicking if you are in a dangerous situation.   

“If you find yourself reaching your limit while trying to self-rescue and swim to shore,” Bottorff concluded, “don’t give up! Change swimming techniques to conserve energy, and fight for your life.”  

For more summer safety tips, follow BCSO on social media or visit redcross.org.   

By: Rebekah Harcrow