Staying Safe on the Water

By Beacon Staff

Warm temperatures beckon recreationists to water, especially around the holidays. This Memorial Day weekend thousands of visitors will likely populate Flathead Lake and other rivers and lakes across the valley. But summertime temperatures can be deceptive in Montana, where most waterbodies are fed by high mountain springs. Combine that with alcohol and no life jacket and it’s a deadly combination.

Since 1998 there have been 87 boating accidents on either Flathead Lake or another waterway in the county, according to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. There have been 101 fatalities in the state over the last 14 years. Fifty-six of the people who died were not wearing a proper life jacket. Twenty-one of those deaths were connected to alcohol. The first boating fatalities of the year took place Easter Sunday when two people drowned on Medicine Lake in eastern Montana.

National Safe Boating Week is right now, and the timing is no coincidence. As usual, spring runoff is filling lakes and rivers as recreationists flock to water for the upcoming holiday weekend.

Even in the peak of summer most lakes and rivers don’t get above 65 degrees, officials say, making cold-water immersion a serious threat.

“In Montana we are worried about cold water all year,” said Liz Lodman, boating education coordinator for FWP.

Lodman often finds herself reminding residents there are several stages of hypothermia and each one can be fatal. Within the first minute of being submerged, shock can quickly cause hyperventilation and a victim’s body can lock up, leading to drowning. Within 10 minutes, a person can become unable to swim or even hold onto a floating object, Lodman says. Even after someone dries off, the risk remains; it may take 30 minutes to become hypothermic and severe hypothermia can take an hour or more to set in, she says.

During last year’s very high water year, 11 people died statewide in boating accidents, the most since 2008. Most occurred on rivers, Lodman said.

Life jackets have proven useful and life saving. They’re also state law. Everyone on a moving motorized or nonmotorized boat is required to have one U.S. Coast-Guard approved jacket per person. Forgetting to bring one can, and often does, result in an $85 fine, Lodman says. Kids 11 years and younger, anyone on a Jet Ski and anyone being pulled behind a boat, like on an inner tube, have to wear lifejackets at all times.

“A life jacket will definitely help you. Unfortunately people still die in boating accidents, but even more die without a life jacket on,” Lodman said. “Water is just a dangerous thing.”

For more information about boating safety and regulations, visit fwp.mt.gov/recreation/regulations/boating/

Accidents on Montana Waters, 1998-2011
348 accidents reported
45 accidents on Flathead Lake
42 accidents on other waterways in Flathead County, including 11 on Whitefish Lake

Fatalities on Montana Waters, 1998-2011
99 fatalities
21 fatalities involved alcohol
56 victims were not wearing lifejackets

Source: Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

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