Life Guard Luke Riveness kept an eye on activity in the water at Wirth Lake in Theodore Wirth Park Wednesday in Minneapolis. The number of non-boating drownings is down drastically this year compared to last, including at Wirth Lake where a 6-year-old boy drowned last year.
Jamee Markley sat in a beach chair at the edge of the dark water of Wirth Lake in north Minneapolis on Tuesday, keeping a close eye on her sons as they played in the water.
Gavin, 11, and Hunter, 9, have access to a pool at their St. Michael home and know how to swim. Still, even with a lifeguard perched nearby, Markley kept her eyes glued to them.
“You just never know when something could happen,” she said. “They could slip and fall and hit their head, and in the water they go. So it’s scary.”
Such parental caution is well-advised as the long holiday weekend arrives, bringing a stretch of hot, sunny weather the likes of which we haven’t seen this year — perfect for hitting the beach or pool.
By this time last year — one in which swimming weather arrived far earlier — Minnesota already had seen 27 drownings, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. By the end of 2012, 40 people had drowned in non-boating incidents in Minnesota.
So far this year, eight people have drowned. The difference is definitely weather-driven, officials say. “When it’s a hot summer, we have more drownings; there are more people using water,” said Lisa Kiava, spokeswoman for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.
In Hennepin County, four people have drowned this year, three of them after vehicles broke through ice. There have been none in Ramsey County and one in Washington County, where a snowmobiler plunged into open water in the St. Croix River in February.
‘Drowning is silent’
As the 2013 swimming season blooms, there are some safety concerns that go beyond those encountered every year.
Kara Owens, boat and water safety specialist at the DNR, said her biggest concern is the uncommonly high water on lakes and rivers, many of which are also loaded with flood and storm debris in the wake of this spring’s relentless rains.
“[Swimmers] thinking about taking a dip in the St. Croix or the Mississippi rivers ... they need to be aware that the high water can often mean a fast current, and a fast current could sweep you away,” Owens said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, children between the ages of 1 and 4 most commonly drown in swimming pools, while more than half of fatal drownings among people over age 15 occur in natural bodies of water.
Drowning happens quickly and often quietly, unlike the screaming and splashing scenes people see on TV.
“A lot of times, drowning is silent,” Owens said. Signs include a person’s head low in the water, tilted back with their mouth at water level; hair covering their forehead and eyes; a vertical position in the water; appearing as if they are climbing an invisible ladder.
Eyes on the water
This year, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has added more lifeguards and increased their hours. Last year, two city beaches were guarded daily and six were guarded Thursday through Sunday. This year, five are guarded daily and three are guarded Thursday to Sunday.
In this year’s training, Minneapolis lifeguards focused a lot more on the wide range of swimming skills that beach- and pool-goers have.
Tyler McKean, aquatic program and facility manager for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, said that the city had not changed its lifeguard training in the past few years other than updating CPR requirements.