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Safe recreation on the river

July 10, 2013

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.