Making a Splash for Water Safety

Contributed by Debra McGhan

Paddling across Byers Lake near Denali National Park one spring day, my family was caught by surprise when the calm waters suddenly began to whip up into massive waves that threatened to capsize our tiny canoe. Fortunately for us, my husband was strong and skilled at keeping our boat pointed into the waves so we didn’t tip over. We were all wearing life jackets and made it safely to shore with nothing more than a good dose of fear.

But that wasn’t the case for my sister-in-law’s parents. They were in a jet boat on the Susitna River not far from Talkeetna when they hit a log jam and her mother was thrown into the water. Polly wasn’t wearing a life jacket, she didn’t know how to swim, and she didn’t have the strength to keep her head above the water. She drowned leaving a huge hole in the family. 

Matanuska Lake, a popular, swimming, boating and fishing lake located along the Glenn Highway, has been the scene of multiple drowning over the years. Despite day time temperatures in the summer reaching into the 70’s and 80’s, the lake water often hovers around 50 degrees. If you get thrown into that water without a flotation device, your body will instantly go into shock and stiffen up putting you at risk for drowning. That’s what happened to two brothers visiting from the lower 47 in the summer of 2012.

There are dozens of stories like these including the one of two young sisters who were boating with their father and friends on Tustamena Lake on the Kenai Peninsula in the spring of 2011. Their weekend adventure turned deadly when their boat was swamped and they had to swim for more than four hours to cross the cold, stormy lake. Three of the five people who started out that day made it out alive; the two young sisters and one of their friends, thanks to the fact that all wore proper fitting life jackets and had the determination and drive to keep swimming despite the miserable conditions. Their story has been memorialized in a gripping film about surviving cold water immersion that can be viewed at the website of the Alaska Office of Boating Safety.

Even after many years of concerted effort, Alaska still has the highest rate of unintentional drowning deaths in the nation. The state has more than six-thousand miles of coastline, more than 365,000 miles of rivers and more than three-million lakes larger than 20 acres. That’s a lot of water. 

And we Alaskans love water. We fish, kayak, jet ski, raft, swim & even skip snowmobiles across it. Basically, we just love being on or near water… as much as possible. 
Whether you’re trying to wade across a river, circumvent a lake or traverse the ocean in a fishing boat, it’s important to learn and practice safety protocols when near or on the water. After all, it’s not like you can just stop or step out of a boat to avoid trouble.

Thanks to support from AARP, the Alaska Avalanche Information Center will be hosting two free water safety workshops in May in recognition of National Water Safety month. The first course will be held on May 14 in Anchorage and the second class is set for May 21 in the Mat-Su Valley. These four-hour workshops, conducted in collaboration with the Alaska Office of Boating Safety, will feature interactive skills practice for the entire family. Gain important safety skills and proper rescue techniques plus lots more. 

You can get more details and register online at 

Here are ten suggestions for water safety:

1.    Wear a properly fitting life jacket when on or near water.
2.    Avoid alcohol and drugs during water activities.
3.    Be especially mindful with children and non-swimmers.
4.    Carry safety gear on your body such as a survival bracelet and whistle.
5.    If you end up in the water, understand the 1-10-1 rule of survival – You have one minute to get your breathing under control. You have about 10 minutes to control your panic and make a plan. And you have about one hour to execute your plan to get out of the water.
6.    When boating, avoid trip hazards by always keeping the deck of the boat clear.
7.    Watch for erosion and bank sloughing when near river banks and streams.
8.    Always evaluate streams carefully before crossing.
9.    If you decide to cross, do it facing upstream moving slightly downstream to use some of the force of the current rather than working against it. If you are a group, lock arms and move in a line or in a supporting triangle.  If you are making a solo crossing, use a stick or pole to keep two points in contact with the ground and wear boots that are higher than the water or shoes that dry easily.
10.    Always be properly equipped mentally and physically when on or around water.

You’ll find lots of great resources for more water safety tips at: