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December 06, 2016
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Safe recreation on the river

Word came in that a nine-year-old boy had drowned on the Middle Delaware just as we were finishing up this editorial on water safety. The boy, who was fishing, slipped and fell into the water. His family and a boat passing by tried to rescue him. He was not wearing a lifejacket.

Who does, when they’re fishing from the river’s banks?

Well, hopefully more of us will, and we will help spread the word, especially as our region becomes more and more popular.

While the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, a unit of the National Park Service (NPS), is a recreational river, putting a canoe, a kayak or raft on its water is nothing like a ride in the controlled setting of a water park amusement ride where all the potential risks are factored in and dangers compensated for. Swimming in its free-flowing current is not even like the ocean with a lifeguard and safe areas for swimming marked off.

No, the Upper Delaware is more wild that that. It’s wild and deceptive.

Even when the river looks calm and gentle, its water is always moving, with different currents running at different rates and in different directions, depending on the water level. The ripples that you see on its often-smooth surface are created by large, mostly slippery boulders and rocks on the river’s bottom. (Another safety must is wearing some sort of river shoes that will protect your feet and provide some sort of traction when maneuvering from shore to water.)

Being on the river requires attention. It requires being careful. It requires anticipating trouble before it happens. Mostly, it demands proper respect from those who use it. To maneuver skillfully, it requires understanding, such as being able to read the currents, and understanding the turbo dynamics of water meeting rock.

It requires wearing a lifejacket, even if you’re a good swimmer.

Following on the heels of five drownings in 2011 in the Upper Delaware, 2012 thankfully saw zero such tragic accidents. Whether this is directly attributable to the significant water safety campaign, “Wear it,” initiated in 2012 by NPS and its community partners, the truth remains that an estimated 80% of drowning deaths can be prevented by wearing a lifejacket.

To facilitate that, the “wear it” campaign’s major focus promotes the voluntary use of life jackets for swimming, boating, fishing and floating. It is getting the message out to river users by partnering with commercial boat rental liveries, the area’s volunteer fire companies and ambulance squads and residents. The message is simple: Lifejackets save lives, it is a simple life-saving strategy.

While the livery industry would like to see mandatory lifejacket wear, current regulations require that a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal floatation device (PFD) be within hand’s reach. However, when water levels remain above six feet as measured at either the gauge at Callicoon, NY or at Barryville, mandatory lifejacket wear requirements apply to every boater on and every swimmer in the river.

With the season’s recreational river use kicking into high gear, it seems appropriate to contemplate the common-sense essentials of water safety and for all of us to understand that river safety is a must. This is especially relevant in light of recent heavy rainfall that saw the river running high and fast, requiring increased skills of boaters and extra caution for anyone in the water.

One key target audience of last summer’s water safety campaign was young men, ages 21 to 35. This is no accident. A visit to the website of the Centers for Disease Control indicates that nearly 80% of people who die from drowning are male. (Studies suggest that the higher drowning rates among males are due to increased exposure to water recreation and to riskier behavior.) Other major risk factors include insufficient swimming ability, including overestimating one’s swimming ability; alcohol use, which impairs judgment; and, yes, failure to wear a life jacket.

The Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River is a wonderful recreational destination, especially when you’re wearing a sturdy pair of river shoes and a well-fitting lifejacket. Accompanied by friends, you can lean back, put your feet up, and float to your heart’s content.

[A recorded message, available 24 hours a day and updated daily during the boating season, provides the river height, air and water temperatures, boating conditions and general river safety information. Call the Upper Delaware River Hotline at 845/252-7100. For more water safety information visit www.nps.gov/upde/planyourvisit/riversafety.htm]