Yes, it’s hot, but the water’s still dangerously cold

Officials warn of strong risk of hypothermia even amid record-setting high temperatures

By Andy Matarrese, Columbian Breaking News Reporter

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It’s spring break, and Thursday was record hot, so Union High School juniors Jimmy Borzoni, Siiri Guttormsen and Kaleb Schwindt figured they’d take a dip in the Columbia River at Vancouver’s Wintler Park.

That didn’t last long.

“Oh, it was like 20 seconds,” Schwindt said.

Guttormsen said it was closer to 10 seconds before they retreated to dry land.

“Even the sand on the beach is cold,” Borzoni added. The three opted to lounge beachside instead.

Thursday’s warm weather, which brought out plenty of beachgoers and boaters, isn’t expected to last, but the frigid waters are, and officials remind boaters or those bold enough to dive in to beware of the cold temperatures.

Cold water immersion and shock, or hypothermia, can happen in water as warm as 77 degrees, according to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

Thursday established a record high temperature of 86 degrees at Pearson Airfield, according the National Weather Service, beating a record of 80 degrees set in 1996. Portland and a number of other Oregon cities saw record-breaking highs as well.

Water temperatures haven’t caught up, however. Matthew Cullen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Portland, said the water temperature at the mouth of the Washougal River on Thursday was 51 degrees.

The water in Clark County’s rivers and streams is as cold or colder almost all year-round, Deputy Todd Baker said while out on patrol in the Columbia River on Thursday, so it’s important to know the risk.

A few years ago, a couple of kayakers went under in the Columbia River Gorge, he recalled, and their bodies were recovered about 25 miles downriver after they likely succumbed to the cold. In 2011, an off-duty Battle Ground police officer drowned in the Columbia after struggling against the cold and the current.

There are roughly 30 drowning deaths on the water in Washington annually, Baker said.

“What really gets those people is the shock and the gasp,” he said. The cold hits them, they take a big gulp, and that’s it.

Baker said temperatures farther upstream in the county’s rivers are still around the low 40s because of runoff from melting snow.

Cullen said water temperatures typically don’t start rising in the Columbia until around July and don’t rise in smaller rivers until around May or June.

The National Weather Service said it predicts Friday’s weather will be mostly sunny with a high of 80 degrees in Vancouver.

Temperatures will drop to the mid- to low-60s through the weekend, with a chance of rain Sunday and the first few days of next week, according to forecasters.

When things start warming up consistently, the state and sheriff’s office said, the first step to avoid the dangers of cold water shock or hypothermia is to wear a life jacket and do everything possible to avoid tipping boats.

For those who fall in, it’s key that they not panic and that they work to control their breathing, and then call for help.

For those who go in the water on purpose, the sheriff’s office advised against swimming alone or exceeding one’s swimming abilities, and said to watch children around the water.

Vancouver’s Rob Grijalva took the plunge at Wintler Park on Thursday but powered through a bit longer.

“It’s freezing, but once you lose feeling in your legs, you’re good,” he said.