We are drawn into the rivers and lakes to relax, explore, cool off. And every year, lives are lost in trade.
Unseen hazards, poor swimmers and bad decisions add to the toll from drowning in the Spokane River, Lake Coeur d’Alene and other popular waters of the Inland Northwest.
Just in the past week, water has claimed four lives locally: two in the Spokane River, one in the Little Spokane River in Stevens County, and a 16-year-old boy who died two days after slipping underwater at Spirit Lake in Kootenai County.
The Spokane River, an urban waterway for the first half of its flow to Lake Roosevelt, is a temptation of convenience and a deceptive diversion. It has claimed more than 300 lives over the past 75 years, according to news archives.
Local jurisdictions track water deaths in various ways, but drowning in lakes and rivers accounts for an estimated 150 deaths in Spokane and Kootenai counties since 1992.
For the most part, these deaths are preventable, experts say. Still, people die each year because they’re unaware of the risks or overconfident in their abilities.
“That’s one of Spokane’s great gems, the Spokane River. Yet treat it with respect,” said Spokane County Search and Rescue coordinator Thad Schultz, a sheriff’s deputy. “A lot of people don’t give the river and moving water and even our area lakes the respect they’re due.”
The county is averaging one drowning a month so far this year, and Schultz was out again Tuesday for another body recovery.
“Even his friend said he’s a poor swimmer. And yet he’s going in the Spokane River,” he said.
Each death, he said, has one thing in common: no personal flotation device. “I’ve been doing this almost 15 years now. I have yet to see a life jacket removed from a deceased person.”
As the snow melts and the days grow warmer, the river beckons swimmers and rafters and tubers.
“We have cabin fever. We wait for the sun to come out and summer to come so we can enjoy these water areas,” said Stacey Bogar, water safety and lifeguard instructor with the American Red Cross Inland Northwest chapter. “You can’t get lulled into a false sense of security that it’s this serene little environment, because it’s not. It’s very dangerous.”
The current is swifter and colder than many people realize when they first get in the Spokane River. And after a day of sun – and often alcohol – a sudden dunk in the water can shock the senses, authorities say.
“The combination of the alcohol and that cold water hitting your face, and your body drains some of your energy already, and then your lack of knowledge on how to swim makes it even harder,” said Lt. Andy Boyle with the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department.
A member of the sheriff’s dive team, Boyle responded to two of the fatal water incidents since last Wednesday. Friday’s drowning at Corbin Park in Post Falls illustrates how the Spokane River is treacherous even where swimmers least expect it, he said.
“The current is a strong animal,” he said. “The eddies and current underneath, they have a tendency to take you where they want to take you, not where you want to go. Even our divers experienced that when they were diving at Corbin Park.”
The river now is nothing like the torrent of the spring runoff, but the flow is up from recent rains, and its placid surface over much of its channel can be deceptive any time of year.
“The Spokane River doesn’t look that intimidating from certain vantage points,” Schultz said. “It will look flat and calm in one section, and that’s what people assume it’s going to look like everywhere, and it’s not that way.”
Even in Riverfront Park, where the river resembles a pond near the Looff Carrousel, people can’t let their guard down. Schultz recalls three bodies pulled from the water there, including one earlier this year.
“You step and slip on those wet rocks and fall in, in some cases you just have seconds,” he said.
What conspires to surprise many swimmers is the combination of warm air, cold water and hidden hazards in open water, said Julie Awbrey, water recreation program manager for the Spokane Regional Health District.
“There’s a rule of thumb called the 50-50-50 rule: For an average adult, there’s a 50-50 chance of swimming 50 yards in 50-degree water,” she said. “I think oftentimes people underestimate that.”
Awbrey, who is active in drowning-prevention efforts in the region, points to safer options for water recreation, including swimming pools with lifeguards and the new splash pads in Spokane city parks.
“Our recommendation is when you’re taking your family out and going for a swim, go in a controlled body of water – a pool,” she said.
She and others also emphasized that children should always wear life jackets when in rivers and lakes, including while in boats, and that parents need to set the example by wearing them as well.
Personal flotation devices make all the difference seat belts make in cars, Schultz said. “If they’re wearing life jackets, they’re alive today.”