• Stay out of rivers for now. Experts say many are running bigger, swifter and colder this year than in years past and are particularly dangerous. If you want to raft or tube a river, wait until after last winter's snowpack has melted off — sometimes as late as September or October.
And beware: Unseen hazards can make any river dangerous any time of the year.
• Don't mix alcohol and swimming. "There's real hard proof now that alcohol greatly increases your risk of drowning," says drowning expert Dr. Linda Quan. Alcohol impairs judgment, so that dares and unrealistic feats ("Let's swim across the river") may appear worth doing. Also, says Quan, studies suggest alcohol may cause an irregular heartbeat when you hit cold water.
• If someone yells for help or gestures wildly, take them seriously, and take action immediately. Often people mistake pleas as a joke, and a person drowns as a result.
Before you attempt a swimming rescue, look for an alternative means — a rope, pole, rowboat, an object to throw the victim for flotation — that does not put you in harm's way. If you need to jump into the water after someone, use an object such as a stick or shirt for the victim to hang onto. Do not let the victim grab you, because he could pull you under, too.
• Swim where there's a lifeguard. "You have a better chance of winning the state lottery than you do of drowning in front of a lifeguard," says drowning expert Tony Gomez.
• But lifeguards aren't baby-sitters. Parents of young children have to watch, too, advises Gomez.
• Wear a life vest while swimming in any open water that doesn't have a lifeguard. Kids younger than 10 should probably wear them all the time, even when there's a lifeguard, even while just playing near the water. Said health educator Tizzy Bennett: "You can lose sight of your child in just seconds."
And of course everyone in a boat should wear a life jacket, too; children 12 and under are required to on boats 19 feet or less, and all boats are required to have life jackets aboard for every person.
• Use good judgment. It's the hardest thing to teach, especially to the age group (15- to 24-year-olds) and sex (male) most prone to drowning in open water.
"In the ideal world, people would be able to use good judgment," Quan said. If you're not a strong swimmer or haven't done it in a while, she advises using a life jacket as an added measure of security.
Keep in mind, she says, that there's a common scenario in open-water drowning accidents: "A bunch of guys, in the evening — that's usually the way it happens. 'We're going to swim across Lake Whatever,' and then one of the guys gets halfway across, and he says, 'I'm tired, I'm going back,' and then Freddie's gone."
Says Quan: "Ideally he would have said, 'I'm going to come with you, but I'm going to put this life jacket on.' "
• Planning to float down a section of river in an inner tube or raft? Before you do, consider that too often an inexperienced river runner judges a river based on what he sees at the put-in or take-out spot — without checking out the stretch between those points. Hazardous conditions such as rocks, falls and logs can exist anywhere along a river.
— Scott McCredie