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Officials urge safety this Memorial Day weekend

High, cold, fast-moving water presents challenges for boaters, swimmers

By , Columbian environment and transportation reporter
Published: May 24, 2017, 9:09pm
5 Photos
Amelia Burik, left, 4, of Vancouver enjoys the water and sunshine with her dad, Nick, right, at Vancouver Lake in 2017. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)
Amelia Burik, left, 4, of Vancouver enjoys the water and sunshine with her dad, Nick, right, at Vancouver Lake in 2017. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

With the early spring’s wet and chilly snap wrapped up and Memorial Day weekend on its way, officials are asking for people to be careful on and around the water as conditions warm up.

The Columbia River is still high and its current fast due to snowmelt.

“The high water’s kind of unusual, and it’s unusual in the fact that they’re anticipating it being high pretty much all summer,” said Clark County sheriff’s Sgt. Brett Anderson, one of the agency’s water patrol deputies.

Higher water and faster currents have contributed to at least one death on the Columbia River this year.

On Monday night, a boat slammed into one of the Interstate 205 Bridge’s support columns. The speed boat sank, and someone on the shore brought its two occupants back to land. One of them, Heidi Knight, 46, of Wilsonville, Ore., did not survive.

Multnomah County Sheriff’s Lt. Chad Gaidos said the crash was still under investigation but noted that the high and fast water, along with the boat’s speed, factored into the crash.

With the water moving that quickly, boats — which aren’t that maneuverable as it is — have a harder time avoiding trouble should something go wrong.

“With this much water in the river, it could speed up the event significantly and make it challenging for you to be able to get through it,” Gaidos said.

He said the sheriff’s office’s boat drivers, who spend a lot of time on the water, had to actively maneuver and even make extra passes, simply to photograph the crash scene.

With that in mind, the Washington State Parks Commission is emphasizing caution for all boaters, especially those on paddle boats and other small craft.

Paddle sports’ popularity is on the rise in Washington, as are paddle sports-related deaths. According to the state, Washington ranks fourth in the nation for recreational fatalities involving small boats.

In 2016, 88 percent of boating fatalities in Washington happened in boats less than 18 feet long, and almost half of those were kayaks or canoes.

The parks commission recommends boaters take some kind of training course through a local outfitter or club — and always wear a life jacket.

Actually wearing the jacket is key, Anderson said, adding that he’s seen plenty of people in kayaks with life jackets strapped to the seat or boat, or stowed away inside.

If your kayak is capsizing, that’s not the time root through your boat, he said.

“You’re in a panic situation. That might be hard for most people,” he said. “I’m assuming most people don’t practice doing that.”

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Anderson added that the high, fast water has also meant increased, though intermittent, debris in the river.

“It can range from a small piece of driftwood, 2 feet long, to an entire tree with a root ball going down the river,” he said.

What’s more, he said, many of the objects are so waterlogged a boater might not see the whole obstacle until they’re too late to avoid.

Anderson also encouraged establishing a float plan: letting someone know where you’re going and when you should be back.

Adding to the risk for boaters and swimmers is the fact that the water is still quite cold, around 50 degrees.

Even with Memorial Day weekend temperatures forecast in the 80s to 90s, the water will still be cold enough that the shock to an unsuspecting swimmer could lead to drowning, or at least increase the risk of exhaustion.

The state parks program encouraged recreationists to dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.

Clark County Public Health encouraged swimmers to know their limits, make sure children have life jackets (the law requires them for kids 12 and younger), keep an eye on kids around water and not mix alcohol with swimming or boating.

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