The Delaware: Dangerous or delightful?
By PATTIE MIHALIK
On a Sunday afternoon that sparkled with sunshine, the Delaware River at the Delaware Water Gap shimmered like dozens of jewels on a dark back cloth.
Up and down that popular stretch of river, people of all ages swam, floated on rafts and big inter-tubes or paddled kayaks and canoes.
The Delaware River, known for its spectacular scenery, is a welcoming oasis to those who come to cool off in the water. But beneath its benign appearance beats a lion of a river with the potential for danger.
That potential became reality last Sunday for a group of New York residents who drove to the river to escape the heat of the city.
A 40-year-old Brooklyn man was among 20 of his friends reveling in the river near Pohatcong Township, New Jersey. His friends lived to make their return trip to New York. He did not.
The Brooklyn man became the seventh victim this summer to drown in the Delaware. He drowned in 30 feet of water where he was swimming without a life jacket.
Is the delightful Delaware more dangerous than other rivers?
While the Lehigh River seldom claims a victim, drownings in the Delaware have become almost routine.
"Unfortunately, the river attracts a lot of people who are unaware of the dangers that are there. They have no concept of the consequences of swimming without a life preserver," said George Fluck, river director of the Delaware Chapter of the National Canoe Safety Patrol. "Few people drown in the Lehigh because that river with its whitewater rapids attracts mostly those who have had some river training."
As one of the volunteers who patrols the Delaware, Fluck knows first hand how deceitful looking the Delaware can be. "It looks calm and it lures people into believing it isn't dangerous. Any river can be dangerous."
The message he and his group of safety directors try to impart: "If you are in a river ] any river ] wear a safety vest at all times."
But that idea is a hard sell for the sun-worshippers who come to frolic on the Delaware.
On a recent Sunday when safety instructor Dave Simons of Orefield was leading a Mohawk Canoe Club trip down the Delaware, he interrupted his paddling several times to approach boaters and swimmers without life vests.
In one small boat, a couple who had rented the boat from a river outfitter had the required life jackets with them but didn't have them on. At Dave's urging, the man put his on but his bikini-clad girlfriend refused. She didn't want to ruin her chances for an all-over tan.
"We can only politely tell people. We have no power to force them," Fluck said. "If there is a child younger than 12, we do try to get through to the parents. But all we can do is try to teach by example."
Indeed, last Sunday when the Brooklyn man drowned in the Delaware, George and Leona Fluck were leading a trip of Mohawk Canoe Club members. When they stopped their kayaks and canoes to swim in the river, every club member was wearing the required life vest, even though the water was only a few feet deep.
"Our rule is that all members must wear a personal flotation device whenever they are on the water," he says.
"We've had to do plenty of rescues where people were in trouble in only a few feet of water. What happens is that they panic and don't realize the water may only be up to their knees."
He explained that water depth in any river can change quickly. "In the Delaware, the average depth is very shallow. Instead of panicking, if people will go with the flow, they will most likely find an area where they can stand up. But they tend to panic and fight the water until they exhaust their energy."
He doesn't think the Delaware is any more dangerous than any other river. What is different about that river is that it attracts many people who have little or no safety training and who don't wear life vests.
Plus, people tend to do dumb things on the river.
Sunday, one trio of teenagers was using their rented boat as a diving board, doing backflips into shallow water.
"They don't seem to realize the river is full of rocks," said the safety director. "Their boat is drifting slowly while they dive. They have absolutely no idea where the rocks are. That's the way serious injury happens."
He remembers when there were six or seven drownings a year at Depue near the Delaware Water Gap. "Then they roped off an area for swimming and put life guards on duty. But the Delaware River is so big that it's impossible to have life guards or our safety patrol everywhere."
The best protection, he says, second to a life jacket, is knowledge.
With kayaking and canoeing enjoying a popularity that's at an all-time high, many novices will be in the water.
"Don't just jump in a boat and think you can paddle safely," Fluck advises. "First take a river safety class. Always paddle in a group and make sure you have people trained in water rescue in that group."
Locally, kayak lessons are available at several places, including the Northeast Kayak School in Weissport.
"The more training someone has, the less likely they are to get in trouble in the water," says Jerry MacAward, owner of the kayak school. He, too, stresses that every river can be dangerous and most people don't know where the problem areas are.
"Keep in mind that a river is never the same from day to day. Water depth changes and that changes the river's challenges," he says.
While the delights of the Delaware ] and every other river ] are vast and waiting to be enjoyed, that delight can turn to danger all too quickly.
"If you plan to get in the water," Fluck concludes, "make sure you are properly prepared with the right equipment and training."