Why it's so easy to drown: Allure of lakes, rivers is deceptive

About a month ago Tom Olesen, a 46-year-old Pierce County deputy sheriff, drove alone to Sunny Beach Point, a neatly manicured park nestled on the shore of Alder Lake, near Eatonville in Pierce County.

It was the first time he'd been able to bring himself to visit the place where, in July 2000, his 18-year-old son, Travis, drowned.

"It was getting close to the anniversary," Olesen said, "so it was time to go and see what the scene looked like. It's a really nice-looking area. A lot of people go there and take their kids, especially during the summertime. I could see why they wanted to swim out to the island."

Angry and profoundly sad, Olesen stood and looked at the lake. A broad meadow rolls down to a sandy, unsupervised swimming beach. Butterflies and swallows careen above marsh grass. A warm breeze stirs the leaves of cottonwoods. The water is calm, inviting.

Travis Olesen and his buddy, Ben, had decided to swim from the point out to a small, forested island about 100 yards offshore. Two other friends and a parent remained on land.

"His buddy made it," Olesen said. "Travis made it out halfway and went down. By the time the sheriff's department divers got to the lake, he was long gone."

Travis was strong, fit and knew how to swim, his father said. But the lake, actually a dammed section of the Nisqually River, is glacier-fed and cold. "Hypothermia is what got Travis," Olesen believes. "Kids or even older folks don't understand how hypothermia can get you."

Hypothermia — the lowering of body temperature — is just one of the many hazards that can end a life when people play in Western Washington's abundant open water — rivers, lakes and saltwater. But by sharpening their knowledge of those hazards, people can safely enjoy these natural wonders — without the terrible and enduring anguish of families who have lost sons or daughters to the water.

"With a little thoughtfulness and some technology, you can still go out there and minimize your risk," said Dr. Linda Quan, emergency-department director at Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center, and one of the world's foremost authorities on drowning.

Most drownings are preventable

According to local drowning experts, when most people think of drownings they think of little kids in swimming pools. The reality is that the majority of drowning deaths in this state occur among adolescents and young adults, and 70 percent of those happen in open water.

In fact, drowning is second only to automobile accidents among 15- to 24-year-olds as a cause of unintentional death. What makes Washington's nearly 1,100 drownings in the past decade especially tragic is that nearly three-fourths were considered preventable.

Among these were the 12 drowning deaths in King County so far this year, seven of them since Memorial Day weekend. Last year there were 17.

More drownings occur in July and August than at any other time of year. The sun hasn't yet warmed the region's lakes, but it's hot enough to drive people into the water to cool off. And most people haven't had a chance to get into shape for swimming, an arduous exercise that can quickly exhaust someone who doesn't do it regularly.

Not like a swimming pool

In Travis Olesen's case, it looks as though he may have overestimated his swimming abilities and underestimated the rigors of swimming in the lake.

"Everybody learns how to swim in a pool," Quan pointed out. "But how many people are comfortable swimming in open water? It's a totally different experience. People don't appreciate distances in open water. People don't gauge current flow and power."

The lake's cool temperature may have hastened his exhaustion. Said Don Schmitz, a King County sheriff's diver who has performed several hundred body-recovery dives in 28 years with the marine unit, "When people hit (cold) water, their muscles spasm and breathing becomes irregular. It's like stepping into a cold shower, and you can have a hard time swimming."

Quan added that cold water can "paralyze you"; she described hypothermia as a "deathlike state" that gradually turns off all the enzymes in your body that control organ function. Motor skills are one of the first things to go.

Travis may also have given himself a false sense of security by believing the now-discredited adage that swimming with a buddy provides a measure of protection. "Swimming with a buddy (in a lake or river) isn't good enough," said Tony Gomez, injury-prevention manager with Public Health — Seattle & King County, "unless (the buddy is) a trained lifeguard."

That's because performing a rescue in open water is problematic without training, because the companion usually has his hands full just keeping himself afloat.

"The only thing a buddy is usually able to do is tell the divers where the body is located," Gomez said.

Good swimmers can drown

Although it seems counterintuitive, the fact that Travis knew how to swim may also have contributed to his death.

Some two-thirds of drownings involve non-swimmers, so experts strongly advise everyone to learn. Swimming is far from a universal skill in this country; one study estimated that as many as 40 percent don't know how. But, ironically, in many open-water drownings people actually do know how to swim. This makes sense because most people probably wouldn't venture out over their heads if they didn't have at least rudimentary skills.

"People who are very good swimmers can drown," Quan explained. "Swimming is not a totally reliable protective measure. But people obviously count on it a lot."

One of the solutions that drowning experts propose strikes many people as odd. They advocate wearing a life jacket when boating or swimming in open water, for both children and adults, even those who know how to swim.

'Stay out of the rivers'

While a life vest could have prevented the type of accident that Travis had in Alder Lake, it might not be as helpful to a person caught in a river swollen with spring and summer runoff. Boulders, logs, waterfalls and the unbelievable power of moving water make swimming or rafting in a fast-flowing river extraordinarily dangerous, even with a life jacket on.

"You wouldn't say to your kids, 'Go play tennis on the freeway,' " said Gomez, who is also head of the King County Drowning Prevention Coalition. "At a river you have the same risks as playing on the streets. We recommend that people stay out of the rivers. They're more dangerous this year than in other years. Stream gauges indicate that they're running swifter, faster and colder this year."

Gomez said the Green River is by far the most dangerous in King County, especially the upper Green, where people jump off cliffs and float on inner tubes over a stretch experts say is so dangerous you'd need a professional river guide to be safe. The Cedar, Snoqualmie and Skykomish rivers are also particularly hazardous now.

Teen parties

Many accidents occur when a group of teenagers or young adults have parties next to a river, said Schmitz, the King County search-and-rescue diver. "They'll consume alcohol, it's hot, and they decide to go swimming. But the water is 42 or 44 degrees, and if it's going over three or four miles per hour it can pull you downstream pretty quickly. Most of 'em try to fight the current. All it takes is 20 seconds and you're out of breath and down you go. If you don't have any education in river running or in how to go down a river safely, you're going to lose."

How to reduce the number of open-water drownings? Experts say that one of the easiest ways is to swim in an area with a lifeguard, where the odds of drowning are about one in 18 million, according to a report cited by Gomez. And parents, especially those who are new to the area, should be more aware of the hazards of open water and communicate that to their children.

"Parents need to talk to their teens," Gomez said. "They need to say 'Take your life jacket and wear it,' or 'I don't want you going there.' A whole lot of discussions need to happen before you hand over the car keys and say 'Have a good time.' "

Perhaps the most difficult obstacle is the nature of water itself, its beauty and serenity, which has a way of beguiling people into thinking there's little to fear.

"You want to point your finger (at drowning victims) and say they were doing something wrong," said Tizzy Bennett, health-education manager at Children's Hospital and a longtime member of the Drowning Prevention Coalition. "But sometimes water looks so safe, and it's so much fun to be in the water in the summer. But it's very deceptive."

Scott McCredie: 206-464-2430 or smccredie@seattletimes.com.