Friday, August 23, 2013

Fun and Death on the Delaware

Tubing on Delaware River, August 2013          (photo/Jan Barry)

Drownings in the Delaware River’s popular tubing and white-water canoeing and kayaking stretches are running high this summer. Yet the deceptively swift, cold water coursing between New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey draws crowds of fun-seeking visitors on sunny summer days.

My partner Paula and I went rafting down the Delaware last week amid a flotilla of families and couples in gaily colored tubs, many with their life vests casually hooked to the tub as they bobbed through riffles and white-water stretches.

Paula was nervous about making this seemingly lazy outing on a scenic river, after hearing that a young man had recently drowned in this section. I assured her that a rubber raft is very stable and that, furthermore, we would also keep our life vests on. Besides, I assured her, I’ve canoed, kayaked and rafted on this river for decades without a problem.

After basking in the sun while the raft bobbed gently along, I decided to cool off and flipped into the water—which was so cold it took my breath away. The raft shot downstream. I had to paddle hard in the life vest to catch up with it. For awhile, I happily floated in the river with one hand on the raft, feeling greatly refreshed.  

Trying to stand in neck-deep water to get leverage to climb back into the raft, my feet were swept and dragged over slippery rocks by a relentless, powerful current. Suddenly, I realized how someone without a life vest and nothing to grab onto could be in serious trouble.

Still, little did I fully appreciate that our fun-loving flotilla was floating down a particularly deadly river for the unwary.

At least six people have drowned or disappeared in the Delaware River this summer, according to news reports, in a season of deeper water and faster currents after frequent rainstorms. But that’s just the tip of a long, grim toll of frolicking-turned-tragedy.       

“Records from the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area show that since 1971, when the park began keeping statistics, 89 people have drowned in the 40-mile stretch of water running from near Milford, Pa., south to Portland,” The Express-Times of Easton, Pa. reported Monday.

“Not one victim was wearing a properly fitted life jacket, said park spokeswoman Kathleen Sandt. ‘That is absolutely one thing that you can do to help keep yourself and your family safe: Wear a properly fitted, United States Coast Guard-approved life jacket at all times,’ she said.”

Meanwhile, in the Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River national park above Milford, Pa, “64 people have drowned in the federal park's 73 miles of water since 1980. Sixty of them were men between the ages of 18 and 30 years old, statistics show,” The Express-Times reported.

"Maybe it's peer pressure. Maybe it's that men are more apt to partake in risky behavior,” Kevin Reish, water safety coordinator for the Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River, told The Express-Times. “But I wouldn't say they are more likely to wear a life jacket.”

In our flotilla group, which launched from a state park boat ramp near Frenchtown, NJ, few women or men kept their life jackets on. At the first rapids, two teenage boys horsed around, climbing, sitting and standing on jagged boulders amid a churning swirl of white water. Further downstream, another youngster wading in chest-deep water nonchalantly watched his life vest float away on the fast-moving current.

This summer, park rangers and police in river towns have stepped up a public education campaign to warn visitors of the river’s dangers and to keep life vests on. Additional river safety tips provided by the National Park Service include:

Never try to stand in rapids. Your foot could become trapped between submerged rocks. The current can be strong enough to push you over and hold you under even if you are wearing a life jacket…

“Wear your life jacket even when swimming. Most drownings occur when boaters stop and swim. Never swim alone!

“Do not overestimate your swimming ability. Do not attempt to swim or wade across the river. The Delaware River has strong currents and steep drop-offs. Swimming becomes more difficult with increased current and water depth.”

For more information:

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