The Air Is Hot, But What About The Water?

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Kayak Tipped Over
Kayakers In The Water | Photo by

The month of July had 18 days with 90 degree or higher temperatures and the month of June had 9 days at 90 or above including Eugene’s all-time record high temperature of 111 degrees on June 27th. I’m sure many people logically think that means the water in the area rivers must have warmed up a lot too. That is not true. Remember where our river water comes from? The mountains. That water is, by nature, cold. That’s where water safety comes in.

River Run
Rogue River Drift Run | Photo by Oregon.gov

Whether you are fishing along a river or stream, canoeing or kayaking down the river, or shooting some serious rapids you need to be aware of the dangers the water can have in store for you. Anytime you are on or even near the water you need to remember that an accidental slip can put you in jeopardy. Wearing a personal floatation device may not set the fashion world on fire and it may not be the most comfortable  article of clothing you have ever worn but it can save your life.

Rescue SAR Team
Rescue SAR Dive Team | Photo by LCWSRU Lane County Sheriff’s Department

There is a dedicated group of people locally who often put their lives on the line to save those who end up in trouble in the water. They are the Lane County Water Search and Rescue Unit (LCWSRU) of the Lane County Sheriff’s Department. Here’s how they describe their job on their website. The LCWSRU “is a non-profit organization dedicated to serving the citizens of Lane County. This unit assists the Sheriff’s office with water related functions, including recoveries, evidence searches, vehicle recoveries, and surface rescues. Divers supply their own SCUBA equipment. The team consists of advanced open water certified divers, swift water rescue technicians, power boat, drift boat, and raft operators, as well as shore support personnel. The picture shows a dive team during a recovery mission – training and teamwork during these difficult jobs in black water is a necessity.”

The Mayo Clinic
The Mayo Clinic, Rochester,MN | Photo by visotmayoclinic.blogspot.com

Back to the topic I started with hypothermia. The Mayo Clinic website defines hypothermia as “a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature.” We all learned in school that 98.6 degrees F is the normal temperature for a human body. The experts say the basic threshold for hypothermia is when the body temperature falls below 35 degrees F. It doesn’t take frigid water to chill the body below that threshold.

McKenzie River Near Vida Water Temperature Graph | Image by USGS
McKenzie River Near Vida Water Temperature Graph | Image by USGS

Since the McKenzie River begins from a flow out of Clear Lake in the Cascades we know the water starts out very cold. As it rushes through the riverbed it can warm up a bit, but it does stay colder than you might expect.The McKenzie is a tributary of the Willamette River which is a tributary of the Columbia River. The whole system is fed by water originating in the mountains. A look at a temperature graph of the McKenzie River at Vida for the period June 6-13, 2021. You’ll notice it fluctuates from the low 50s to about 60 degrees F and then falls a bit again.

Kayak Tipped Over
Kayakers In The Water | Photo by Julie Titone, Sokane, WA /The Spokesman-Review

Julie Titone, Spokane, WA The Spokesman-Review

Imagine you are rafting down the McKenzie on a nice sunny day and your raft tips over dumping you into that cold water. The longer you have to swim the more body heat will be lost. As your body gets colder your muscles start to stiffen up and it becomes more difficult to keep your head above the water.

PFD
Personal Floatation Device PFD | Image USGA ww.cgaux.huntington.org

This is where your personal floatation device becomes vital. With it you have a better chance to keep your head above water and a diminished chance of drowning. Without the device you keep using up your strength and body heat (Remember the water is between 56 F and 60 F) and the chances of hypothermia setting in and you not surviving increase geometrically. Spending a day sitting beside the McKenzie River many years ago I was shocked to see so many people shooting the rapids with their personal flotation devices sitting at their feet rather than strapped on. Even some children weren’t protected. That’s scary! If you flip over you won’t have the time to even grab your PFD let alone be able to put it on and stay afloat. Recently there was a fatal boating accident on the river and the man who drown was not wearing a personal flotation device (life jacket).

Just an aside, do you remember hearing news stories about people  jumping into the river thinking they could get away from the police by swimming to the other side? They usually get picked up down stream or drown. They don’t realize how strong the current is and how cold the water can be. I figure they just aren’t smart enough to realize the police have radios in their patrol cars and can have other officers waiting on the other shore or down stream waiting for them.

Safe Boating
Safe Boating Course By U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary | Image by Boat Ed, www.boat-ed.com

So, if you plan to be near, on or in the water please take the necessary precautions and be safe. If you have a boat make sure you take the safe boating course, the Coast Guard Auxiliary offers them and don’t drink and drive your boat, or car for that matter. Always remember that you are dealing with a living river not a quiet pond. Safety first will allow you to have fun and survive the adventure.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: [email protected].

Tim Chuey is a Member of the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association and has been Awarded Seals of Approval for television weathercasting from both organizations.

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