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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

High, cold water deceptively dangerous

‘In one minute you are drowned. You panic. You start fighting it. You need air. It’s too late.’

Lynn Derby, of Spokane Valley, and her son Aaron paddle in an eddy on the upper Spokane River at Harvard Park on Sunday. (J. Bart Rayniak)

Nearly two dozen people in Washington and Idaho have died from drowning since the start of May, many of them in the turbulent, cold waters cascading out of the mountains this year.

Most of the deaths were preventable, authorities said.

Each of the accidents was heart-wrenching, like the case of the Kamiah, Idaho, man who drowned in Lolo Creek trying to save his dog last May.

Drowning happens faster than most people realize, law officers said.

Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings has responded to four drownings this spring, including the Lolo Creek death.

“In one minute you are drowned,” Giddings said. “You panic. You start fighting it. You need air. It’s too late.”

Drowning victims frequently suffer head injuries and broken bones prior to losing air.

The pain, Giddings said, “takes the fight right out of you.”

Having a guide and a personal flotation device is no guarantee of safety, he said. Running rivers may be fun, but it’s also dangerous. Helmets are advised for whitewater sports.

“People are going to push the edge,” he said. “People do dangerous things.”

In May, Robert Desmarais, 65, of Hauser, died on the Owyhee River in southeast Oregon when the two-person inflatable kayak he was in flipped at a rapid called Upset. The water was running at 4,000 cubic feet per second, which was not considered to be dangerous at the time, but Desmarais was trapped underwater by the river’s hydraulics. Efforts to revive him failed.

That incident along with a drowning on the Blackfoot River near Missoula raised the total number of deaths to 25 since May, including 23 in Washington and Idaho.

In Kootenai County, a 43-year-old man, who was snorkeling in the Spokane River near Corbin Park in Idaho, was not wearing a personal flotation device and was alone at the time, said Major Ben Wolfinger of the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department.

The Spokane River below Post Falls Dam has an uneven channel that creates undertows and waves that can be deadly, he said.

“It’s easy to get sucked down in there,” Wolfinger said, especially during spring when the river is running above 10,000 cfs. “There’s just a lot of water.”

The death is one of two drownings this year in Kootenai County. Another one occurred in March when a woman drove down the Honeysuckle Beach boat ramp at Hayden Lake. Alcohol was believed to be a contributing factor.

A similar accident in Spokane in June claimed the lives of three Bhutanese refugees. Their bodies were found on July 6 after water in the raging Spokane River dropped to reveal a bumper that had been ripped off the men’s car when it went off the road and into the river.

Speed and alcohol were believed to be factors.

In another Idaho County incident, the body of Mary Jo Roberts, 49, was found six miles downstream after she apparently fell into the Payette River near McCall. She was the wife of state Rep. Ken Roberts, of Donnelly.

A Wisconsin man drowned in the Lochsa River on May 28 when his raft hit a rapid and tossed all four occupants into the water. Three of them made it to shore. The survivors pulled Randy A. Eroen, 35, from the river and started CPR, but it was too late.

Washington has about 100 unintentional drownings each year, according to health department records.

Idaho had 153 drownings from 1999 through 2007.

July Fourth weekend was particularly deadly.

In Washington, a Battle Ground police officer died in the Columbia River near Vancouver when he jumped into the water from a boat on July 3.

That same day, a 69-year-old Chelan County woman died on the Wenatchee River when her guided raft flipped as it hit a log jam. The guide and six occupants were thrown into the water

The next day, a 16-year-old boy drowned while swimming at Horseshoe Lake about 20 miles north of Vancouver.

A 37-year-old Edmonds man disappeared during the weekend while on a camping trip alone in Snohomish County. His body was found several days later and it appeared he went into Elk Creek when an embankment near his tent collapsed.

In another incident, a 47-year-old Renton man drowned July 4 in the Cooper River in Kittitas County during an outing on an inflatable kayak. He was not wearing a life jacket, the sheriff’s office said.

A sheriff’s news release summed up the risk: “Due to high mountain snow melt, the river is running fast and very cold.

“The area downriver from the incident has many log jams and sweepers. It is a dangerous section, even for properly equipped and experienced people. The use of a life jacket substantially increases your chance of survival, especially in cold moving water.”

Wolfinger said the most important safety rules are to wear a life jacket, don’t overload a boat, don’t drink while engaging in water sports and don’t swim alone.

“Drownings are one of those preventable things,” he said.