Swimming safety is in your hands

Waters are fun, but unguarded: Learn before you dive in

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In light of the three recent drownings and water that’s been running high with swift currents, authorities are cautioning that some lakes and streams are better for swimming than others.

The Clark County area has more than a dozen parks with public swimming access, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. Before going out to swim, look at the water conditions and know the surroundings. Jilayne Jordan, a parks spokeswoman, said the parks are open for all ages but parents should make sure that children know how to swim.

“There’s not a lifeguard on duty, so treat it as such,” said Jordan.

None of the Clark County parks with open water access has a lifeguard. Very few have sectioned-off areas just for swimmers. All the parks have “swim at your own risk” policies.

According to the Center for Health Statistics, in Clark County there were 10 drownings in 2009, the most recent year available, and 54 from 2000 through 2009.

Already this summer there have been three drownings in Southwest Washington. On Tuesday, Anthony A. Seitz, 11, of Vancouver drowned in an area known as the Potholes, south of Round Lake. He reportedly jumped into the water after a pop bottle. Jesus Orlando Gomez Beltran, 16, of Woodland drowned July 4 in Woodland’s Horseshoe Lake. The day before, Battle Ground police Officer Michael M. Molzahn, 41, of Battle Ground drowned while swimming in the Columbia River.

In a review of newspaper clippings by the Washington Department of Health, every one of the state’s eight drownings at park areas in 2010 occurred when the swimmer was with family or friends. The swimmer got tired and disappeared. Hypothermia — extreme chilliness — was suspected as a contributing factor.

Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation suggests that swimmers know their limits, children are never left alone and anyone who doesn’t know how to swim stay out of the water.

About 90 percent of the deaths of those 10 to 17 years old occurred in open water like a lake, river or pond, and about half the victims ages 1 to 4 drowned in open water.

Water safety is especially important in the months of May to August, when 71 percent of drownings occurred, according to a 2007 state health department report.

Bill Bjerke, operations superintendent of the Clark County Public Works, said many places offering swimming are popular with kids.

“I don’t trust anything (water areas) with a toddler,” said Bjerke.

To try to prevent drownings, life jacket loaner stations have been put in place. It’s a statewide program to try to keep children safer while swimming. In Clark County, Battle Ground Lake State Park has this system: Parents can borrow life jackets for their children while they are using the park.

There is always a need for caution when swimming, but knowing the current water conditions and area is a step in the right direction. Each of the Clark County parks is different in location, swimming areas and water conditions, so the risk can change between now and the next sunny day.

Take the tots

• Battle Ground Lake State Park is two miles northeast of Battle Ground, on Battle Ground Lake. The lake is fed by underground springs, so, unlike in a river, there isn’t a current. This is one of the few parks where a swim area is roped off from boats. Reuben Stuart, park ranger, said this area attracts children around the ages of 4 to 14 as well as teens and adults. The lake also allows swimming anywhere except off the boat dock. E. coli counts are monitored every two weeks throughout the summer, starting June 21, by the Washington State Department of Parks.

• Salmon Creek Regional Park, home to Klineline Pond, is near Northeast 117th Street and Interstate 5 in Vancouver. The park has a roped-off swim site. It’s generally used by kids older than 3. A splash pad was created for toddlers to prevent contamination of the water and for their safety, but is not operating this year due to funding cuts. This is one of the county’s most popular parks in the summer, according to the monthly vehicle count conducted at four of the parks with parking fees. Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation monitors the water quality every week throughout the summer.

• Daybreak Regional Park is northeast of Battle Ground near Dollars Corner, on the East Fork Lewis River. It has a sandy beach providing an informal swim area where many people go. Bjerke, said the average depth across some areas of the river ranges from 8 to 12 inches, creating an area for kids and families. The river’s depth changes depending on the time of year.

Think twice

• Hathaway Park is on the Washougal River near 25th Street by Hathaway Elementary School. It doesn’t have a sectioned swim area. Park Manager Suzanne Bachelder said there are swim areas in a natural alcove with slower moving water. However, it’s a river, so there is a slight current.

• Sandy Swimming Hole near Shepard Road in Washougal is on the upper end of lower Washougal River Greenway. In the summer, “parking is wall to wall,” Bachelder said; it’s probably the most popular of all the swim areas in east Clark County. For decades it has attracted all ages. There is a current, because the hole is in the Washougal River, and some deep and uneven surfaces add to the risks.

• Lewisville Regional Park is on Lewisville Highway near Battle Ground and borders the East Fork Lewis River. The swimming area is in the deeper part of the river. Good swimming skills are needed for the faster currents and uneven ground. Lewisville has some sandy beaches that people flock to, said Jordan. In both 2009 and 2010, it’s the most popular of the four parks where the parks department tracks the vehicle count.

• Moulton Falls Park is on the East Fork Lewis River near Big Tree Creek in Yacolt. This area generally attracts teenagers. As with other rivers, the area has a current and caution should be used. Some areas have deep dropoffs, steep banks and rocks.

Better for boaters

• Vancouver Lake Regional Park is three miles from downtown Vancouver. It’s considered a safer place to swim with little current. Still, Bjerke, said the area is designed for teens to upper 20s. An area of sand has been put down for public sunbathing and there is lots of boating. The park was the most popular in May 2011 according to the monthly vehicle count. Clark County Public Health monitors E. coli and blue-green algae blooms every two weeks, which can cause the lake to be closed to swimming during the warmest weather.

• Lacamas Lake and Round Lake are both in the Camas area near Northwest Lake Road. The lakes are adjacent to one another and have no designated swimming areas. The lakes receive water from Lacamas Creek, which feeds into Round Lake and back into Lacamas Creek. Jerry Acheson, parks manager, said Heritage Park has popular boating access to Lacamas Lake. Round Lake is used for boating as well; Jordan doesn’t recommend swimming in it because of the boat traffic.

• Paradise Point State Park, six miles south of Woodland, is on the East Fork Lewis River. The river always has a slight current and is used by all different ages. Matt Smith, the park manager, said the current will flow backward when the tide comes up the Columbia River. Since there is boating on the river, the most-used swim area is in the no wake zone.

Rarely recommended

Parks with water access to the Columbia River, including popular sunning and splashing destinations such as Wintler Park, are generally not recommended for swimming by the Parks and Recreation department, Jordan said. The Columbia is the most dangerous place to swim. The river has swift currents and steep dropoffs. The water is very cold, which could cause hypothermia.

“Wade, walk around, but not swimming,” Jordan said.

• Frenchman’s Bar Regional Park is the most popular park on the Columbia, two miles from Vancouver Lake Park. It is most popular in July according to the monthly vehicle count in 2009 and 2010.

• Captain William Clark Regional Park at Cottonwood Beach and Wintler Beach Community Park near Southeast Beach Drive and Highway 14 are both on the Columbia River. No swim area is roped off at either of these parks but people go to sandy areas on the riverbanks. Some of the areas of water might have pollutants.

• Lucia Falls Park is near Yacolt. There is no swimming allowed because of sensitive “fish spawning grounds,” according to the Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation website. People are not allowed in this water source.

Maecy Enger: maecy.enger@columbian.com; 360-735-4569.