A giggle escapes your daughter’s lips as you wipe fat drops of chlorine-scented water from your face. You give back as good as you got, eager to keep the game going, when you see a lifeguard jump into the pool.
Members of the Del Norte County Search and Rescue Team practice swift-water rescues last year on the Smith River. Del Norte Triplicate file / Bryant Anderson
He swims straight for your son who had been bobbing up and down near the deep end.
“That’s odd,” you think as the lifeguard pulls your son out of the pool. “He didn’t look like he was in danger. He didn’t even yell for help.”
It’s not a scenario that’s played out at Crescent City’s Fred Endert Memorial Pool as far as Manager Matt Hildebrandt knows, but it could. Hildebrandt, who started working at the pool as a lifeguard in 1978 and has been pool manager for 11 years, said recognizing a swimmer in distress is a vital skill for lifeguards.
“They’re having trouble getting to the side and their kick isn’t efficient so they need assistance,” he said of swimmers in trouble. “They don’t thrash around and they don’t call for help. It’s a quiet process.”
As families head to rivers, pools and ocean, adults and kids should be aware of the surrounding environment and know how to get out of treacherous situations. This could mean keeping an eye out for sneaker waves at the beach or being able to escape a swift current on the river, said Del Norte Search and Rescue Coordinator Terry McNamara.
At the pool
Danger can be averted by making sure children learn how to swim, how to use a life jacket correctly and how to get to safety if the water gets over their heads or they tire, Hildebrandt said.
The pool offers swim classes for all ages and at all swim levels, Hildebrandt said. The next session begins July 8.
“For beginners the lessons are going to be as basic as entering and exiting the pool safely,” he said, adding that students learn how to tread water, how to dive safely and use life jackets correctly. “We also teach them to bob to safety. If they find themselves in water over their heads or are too tired, we teach them how to push with their feet off the bottom of the pool or lake and bob towards shallower water or to the side of the pool.”
Swimmers who are struggling can stay at the surface for 20–30 seconds before they start to go under, Hildebrandt said. Their arms are either out in front of them or to the sides and they are usually making flapping motions.
“In their mind, they’re trying to climb out of the water,” Hildebrandt said. “They want out, but their legs aren’t doing much of anything at that point. That’s the instinctive drowning response and that’s what that arm movement is.”
Swimmers are allowed to bring floatation devices and life jackets that are approved by the U.S. Coast Guard to family swims at Crescent City’s pool, but the use of inflatable arm bands, also known as water wings, is discouraged, Hildebrandt said.
“They don’t provide any support for a child,” he said. “It’s very easy for them to fall forward. The little ones don’t have the strength to lift their head far enough out of the water and breathe.”
On the river
The killer is usually cold, swift water, McNamara said. Two years ago a man got caught in a fast current on the Smith River and drowned while trying to rescue his son on the Fourth of July.
“He didn’t know how to swim and his son wasn’t a good swimmer,” McNamara said. “They got caught in a current in the river, a big one.”
The temperature on the Klamath River was 65 degrees Friday in Klamath, Hemus said. He estimated that the Smith River was a little cooler due to its shorter drainage. Hemus added that water levels on the Smith, while twice as high as the 81-year average as of Friday, will likely drop this weekend.
“River conditions are like May rather than late June because of the recent wet weather and cooler temperatures,” he said. “We typically don’t get swimmers until (the water) gets in the higher 60s.”
Families who plan to visit the Smith River this summer should pick a spot where the water is calm, McNamara said. Examples include an area near Slant Bridge off of U.S. Highway 199 near South Fork Road, Craig’s Beach on South Fork Road and an area near Mary Peacock Bridge on U.S. Highway 199 near Gasquet, he said.
River-goers who do find themselves stuck in a swift current should swim at a 45-degree angle, using the current to propel them to shore, McNamara said. Those caught in the middle of a waterway can often find calm spots behind large rocks, giving them a chance to figure out what to do next, he said.
“The best thing is to swim literally like your life depends on it,” McNamara said. “What we teach is once you realize, ‘Uh oh, the current is starting to get to me,’ you don’t stop to think about it, you go for it right now.”
At the beach, people should be aware of tidal changes when exploring to keep from becoming stranded, McNamara said.