Play it Safe on the River

Here in Missoula, the time between “let’s go floating” and pushing off from shore can be counted in minutes. Strings of floaters drifting through town and down the Blackfoot or Bitterroot are a sure sign that summer is here, and if you’re not on a river you’re probably wishing you were. But here’s the other side of river fun—in the last ten years, 26 people have drowned in or around Missoula. “It’s an old message, but it bears repeating,” says Traci Jasnicki, RN, Trauma Coordinator at Community Medical Center. “Don’t underestimate the water.” It’s a fact: The river holds all the cards. For one thing, cold water can quickly drain your strength and make it hard to swim. According to Jasnicki, Montana waters are always cold enough to cause hypothermia, and it doesn’t take long. You might also encounter submerged trees and other hazards that can snag you or your clothing. And river flow can sweep you under log jams and keep you there. On some days, conditions are so dangerous that the only safe move is to stay off the rivers altogether. Most summer days, though, are prime for river fun—as long as you take care. Whether you’re floating, swimming or just sitting on shore watching your kids play, there are steps you can take to lower the risk of someone being injured or drowning. Keep this checklist in mind—or on your refrigerator door:


  • If you or your kids aren’t good swimmers, take swimming lessons at the YMCA.
  • Learn CPR and lifesaving techniques. The YMCA can help you here too. Or check out classes at Grizzly Pool.  According to Jasnicki, even watching YouTube video on CPR can help.
  • Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to get back.
  • Check the river conditions. If you’re headed for a lake, check the forecast for wind warnings.
  • Keep a close eye on kids—they can get to the water in seconds.
  • If you’re rafting or tubing, have a quick meeting before you push off. Agree on emergency hand signals and remind everyone what to do in a crisis (see worst case scenario, below).
  • Put on sunscreen, even if it’s a cloudy day—clouds don’t stop UV rays. Make it at least 30 SPF, and use plenty.
  • Before you dive in, use your feet to check for underwater obstacles. Do that even if you’ve dived in the same place before. Changing water levels can mean rocks and other obstacles are closer to the surface.
  • Don’t overload your boat. And remember that small bodies can bounce out in rough water.
  • Wear your life vest. If you wait for rough water you may not have time.
  • Think twice about drinking alcohol. It slows your reflexes and impairs balance and judgment. Alcohol also makes your body lose heat faster
  • If you get dumped from a raft into rough water, float on your back with your feet downstream. That helps protect your head, and you can push off rocks with your feet, Jasnicki says.
  • Don’t try to fight the current. According to Jasnicki, it’s best to go with the flow until you get to calm water.
  • If someone throws you a rope, hold it at your chest while you lie on your back and kick to move toward the rescuer. Don’t tie the rope to yourself.

You can learn more about lifesaving techniques from the Red Cross. In fact, check out the app for lifesaving techniques. But prevention is always best. And the best case scenario is to get off the river tired, hungry, happy…and safe.