Tuesday, July 21, 2015


First, thank you: When I reached out last week in this blog, seeking advice on helping a Ghanaian swimmer help others learn to swim, I imagined I was casting a message in a virtual bottle, letting come what may. But it reached you directly and you reached back quickly, with heartfelt help and mindful advice.
Many of you pointed me to the same person, co-founder Dan Graham of Nile Swimmers, a United Kingdom charity based in Sudan. Dan gave me a frank and thorough background on the scope of lifesaving efforts in Africa, successful but woefully underfunded against pandemic drowning. He advised me of the challenges and pitfalls of providing help remotely. Dan, in turn, pointed me to three organizations already doing similar work in Ghana, with whom my Ghanaian acquaintance might harness his efforts.

I'm hoping the next steps bring a good result soon …
It is no longer cold in my beloved Lake Natoma. At nearly 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the water is far warmer than I can remember over the four years I've swum here.

The current is strong, though. Water officials said they would slow releases from Folsom Lake into Lake Natoma in this drought, but it doesn't feel like they have. I have learned to swim against the current by hugging the north edge of the rocky ravine, a weather eye out for the canyon edges, which jut out over my head at times.

I'm finding eddies, some strong enough to swirl around and push me forward, then fighting against the rush of water as I round a rocky point, until the water relaxes and lets me into the next eddy. It's sneaking to the edge of Folsom Prison by the long route, but I'll take it. I have no choice.

Once up to the prison chain, I plow sideways into the middle of the channel, and feel my body fly back down the ravine where moments ago I had been climbing half-foot by half-foot.

I've been taking this for granted, I realize. The numbness I feel in in my hands in the winter water has this summer reached my head and heart.

Each morning this week, I have been swimming past a body, somewhere below in the green water.

A 22-year old man drowned in this water last Thursday. He and some friends tried either to swim across the lake or into the middle, and got tired. Kayakers rescued two, one swam back to safety on his own. The 22-year-old man disappeared. Recovery crews have yet to find him.

On my way up through the current toward the prison, I pass the rocky island near where rescuers last saw him.

He is one of six people in the last three weeks to have drowned in the rivers and lakes around Sacramento.

The other five drowned along the lower American River, or at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers, where the current can sweep unsuspecting swimmers over unseen drop-offs below the surface and pull them under.

The Sacramento has long been a river of industry, its bottom crowded with concrete slabs and poles and cables and downed trees and junked cars — there to catch a struggling swimmer.

The Sacramento Fire Department reports that an average of eight people drown in Sacramento's rivers each year – four times the national average. This year the terrible season started early, with a drowning in late and warm March at the rivers' confluence. The number of drownings has already exceeded the average.

Drowning, widespread far away, is also prevalent here, where we would expect the resources to prevent it.

I had been numb to it all, until that man drowned near where I swim. Now I mark his passing, looking shoreward to see if anyone has come to mourn him, looking to see if recovery teams have resumed their search that early in the morning.

Now I wonder how I could help stop the drownings. I have been blessed to be able to swim, blessed to have had help since childhood to overcome my fears and respect the water; blessed to have practiced open water swimming, first as a Scout leader, then with new friends passionate about the sport, who would not let me give up because of new old-guy fears.

I have been blessed to have time to swim my lake, to learn its ways, to learn to relax and be patience in current and high chop.

But I have lost touch. In the television news stories, I have heard experienced swimmers describe Lake Natoma as "extremely cold," and I have forgotten that for many people who rarely or never go into the lake, it can feel cold even in high summer.

I had forgotten that not long ago, helping Scouts learn canoe rescue techniques in Lake Natoma, the cold (64 degrees F) shocked me head to toe, arrested my breathing, chased away rational thought, began to induce panic.

Though I'm as snarky as the next skins swimmer, I'm not militant: If a wetsuit is what it takes for someone to swim the open water, I bid welcome.

I had forgotten, too, how frightening moving water can be, how futile it made me feel.

The city and county are taking new water safety steps after this horrible string of drownings, including new signs posted near the most dangerous landmarks along the American and Sacramento rivers, and rangers talking with beachgoers about the perils of swimming.

It already provides life vests on a rack at swimming holes along the two rivers, including the dangerous confluence. Many people, unfortunately, ignore the offer.

I'd like to do more, and as usual with most of my public whinings, I don't know what. I'm not trained to teach others to swim, and I'm not even sure encouraging more open water swimmers is even the answer. Though I do encourage anyone halfway interested to give it a try, as safely as possible along the shallow beach at the lower end of my beloved lake.

I would not swim where most have drowned, where the currents and undertows are swift even at low levels. Most of the victims weren't even swimming, but wading until they got too far out to come back. Only in a few instances have drownings resulted from hubris, swimming beyond ability and knowledge.

Knowing is key — knowing how to swim, knowing how to relax in the water, knowing where the life vests are, knowing where the water is dangerous. The education is often in English and many who drown here don't speak English.

I can do something. The numbness needs to go away.

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