Baking hot weather this month has brought flocks of river enthusiasts to the water once again. Last week, they could be seen floating down the Clark Fork River on inner tubes, splashing along its banks and jumping from the Madison Street pedestrian bridge.
This despite the fact that the river is running high and fast – and jumping from bridges is illegal in Missoula County.
There’s a reason why drowning deaths are most common in June, July and August, and it lies in the magnetic pull of western Montana’s cool, clear waters on hot summer days. Sadly, the vast majority of these deaths could have been prevented by following a few basic safety measures.
Residents of western Montana may think we know all these measures already, but the evidence proves otherwise. Each year, amateurs and professionals, newcomers and lifelong Montanans alike fall victim to unpredictable rivers - and unpreparedness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Montana counted 177 unintentional drowning deaths during 2003 to 2011, giving the state a rate of 2 deaths per 100,000 people; higher than the national rate of 1.3 deaths per 100,000 people.
The Montana Injury Prevention Program calculates that, on average, eight people drown each year in Montana’s wild waters. Drowning deaths are most common during the summer, on weekends and between the hours of 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Whatever time, day of the week or month of the year, it’s critical to take certain precautions before heading for the river:
• Wear a life jacket, and make sure it is fastened securely so that it can’t be pulled off by a strong current. Children younger than 12 years old are required by state law to wear a life jacket in any moving boat smaller than 26 feet long.
• In certain river conditions, it’s a good idea to wear a helmet as well.
• Learn to swim. Those who know how to swim stand a better chance of surviving when their craft capsizes than those who don’t.
• Learn CPR and First Aid. CPR is effective at saving the lives, and the sooner it is started, the better the outcome for the victim.
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• Always supervise young children around water.
• Take a buddy, or better yet, a group – and make sure everyone stays together.
• Leave the alcohol ashore.
• Know the water and current weather conditions. Even when water levels are lower and slower, debris is constantly churning and the river ever changing.
• Leave contact information and a vehicle description with someone who isn’t going to the river so loved ones know when to expect you back home – and so authorities can locate anyone who’s overdue.
Additionally, a few extra measures can make everyone’s time on the water more pleasant, and help preserve the resource for future river recreationists.
Pay attention to parking signs; neighbors don’t appreciate vehicles blocking their streets, and law enforcement has better things to go than write tickets for illegally parked cars.
Make sure you’re entering the water at established put-ins. Hundreds of recreationists trampling sensitive riparian areas can do a great deal of damage, and unfortunately, it’s the kind of damage that can take many years to heal.
Leave the glass at home and pick up any trash. Each year, volunteers pull tons of garbage from local rivers – everything from blown inner tubes to empty beer cans. This pollution creates a public hazard as well as an ugly stain on Montanans’ river-loving reputation.
Each year seems to bring more people out to western Montana’s rivers, lakes and streams. If more of us make sure to show some courtesy and common sense, we can all continue to enjoy the beauty, splendor – and cool water – safely for many more years to come.