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Spring water safety

by Warren Illi
| May 19, 2022 12:00 AM

During the last couple of weeks there have been three tragic drownings of local folks enjoying some of Northwest Montana’s rivers and lakes. Northwest Montana has hundreds of lakes and streams well suited for a wide variety of recreation uses. Recreation water users have a wide variety of water skill levels ranging from rank novice to highly skilled.

National and Montana statistical data on recreational drownings all tell the same story, that the preponderance of recreational drownings could have been prevented with the proper use of life vests.

People love water, from sprawling lakes like Flathead Lake to small babbling brooks. Water is very therapeutic. Some folks can have an enjoyable water experience by simply sitting on the lakeshore and watching the waves roll in. Others need to get on the lake or river to get full enjoyment. It is those of us that like to get on the water that are exposed to the risk of drowning. The risk of drowning for those of us that can swim, wear our life jackets and understand the dynamics of river currents or wave action, have a near-zero risk of drowning.

In the spring, when water temperatures are very cold, some times just a few degrees about 32 degrees, people unexpectantly dunked into a lake or river, also face the threat of hypothermia. If you accidentally get dumped in the water, icy water can suck the heat from your body in a few minutes, rendering you unconscious and unable to use your arms and legs to keep your head above water. Good life jackets not only hold your head above water, but can help insulate your body from the cold water. Recreationists using rivers face the challenge of having to know how to safely maneuver through strong currents and white water. Spring high water can eat away the soil around stream side trees, causing them to tumble into the river. These trees extend over the stream, usually at water surface level. These trees are called sweepers. The current can suck you and your boat under the sweeper tree and underwater.

Another threat to safe spring boating is the general lack of other recreational boaters on our lakes or rivers, who can render aid if you get into trouble. On a hot summer afternoon, when our lakes are full of other boaters and the water temperature is in the 60’s and 70’s, an unexpected dunk into a lake may be just a fun and laughing experience. But that same location in the early spring with ice cold water and no other boaters around to help you, can be life-threatening.

A few years ago, I was test running my 14 foot boat early in the spring. I have to admit that my boat was probably a little over-powered. I was racing the boat down the middle of a lake at full throttle, enjoying the high speed. I wasn’t wearing my life vest (dumb… no very dumb). It was resting on my center seat. It was a tiller steered motor. The vibration of the boat was causing my life jacket to jiggle off the center seat. So, I leaned forward to grab the life jacket, without relaxing my arm on the tiller. As I leaned forward, my tiller arm pushed the tiller to the left, causing the boat to turn very sharply to the right, nearly throwing me out of the left side of the boat. Luckily, I stayed the boat and landed on the floor. If I had been flipped out the boat, the boat would have continued on without me, eventually crashing into the shore. I would have been in the middle of the lake, in very icy water and no life jacket. I likely would have drowned. I must admit that incident really spooked me.

Montana boating laws require that every person in a boat have a coast guard approved life jacket in the boat. Kids 12 years and younger must have their life jackets on. The old style of life jackets were very awkward to wear and bulky. Newer life jackets are very comfortable to wear and usually contain some pockets for fishing gear. So, it is not much different then wearing a fishing vest.

Kayaks have taken the boating world by storm in the last few years. I suspect there have been more kayaks sold in the last five years than all other boats combined. You can buy a kayak for just a few hundred dollars and easily carry one on top of your car. They are really fun to play with on a hot summer day. But I suspect that many kayak owners are relatively new to recreational boating, so may not be fully aware of some of the dangers of spring boating. I think all three recent downing in Western Montana, involved kayaks. So, approach kayaking with some caution.

Continue to enjoy the many lakes and rivers of Northwest Montana, but be cautious, recognize your skill level and always, always wear your life jackets.

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