Make safety the watchword this weekend

The Canada Day weekend and the promise of decent weather (finally!) give Albertans a chance to do what we love most in the summer: enjoy our vast and brilliant outdoors.

The Canada Day weekend and the promise of decent weather (finally!) give Albertans a chance to do what we love most in the summer: enjoy our vast and brilliant outdoors.

We will flock, along with millions of our fellow Canadians to places where there is water.

At its most basic level, water is essential to our life. Socially, it’s also where we gather for fun and fellowship.

Water can also be deadly, especially in a northern climate like Canada, where the ice has barely left our waters.

Even familiar places that might seem benign to the unwary can be deadly.

Right now, the Red Deer River — like scores of other Alberta recreational waters today — is high, cold and muddy, owing to the large snowmelt and monsoon June storms.

Even when it’s low slow and clear, the Red Deer River can still be extremely dangerous.

It’s not that many summers since a pair of young brothers were playing in shallow water, near the boat launch in Waskasoo Park.

A backwater makes that section seem benign, even in late summer.

But if you are small and unwary, a step too far into deeper water can take you into the full current and sweep you away instantly.

That’s precisely what happened that day, with fatal results.

Even calm water can be deadly.

Several years ago, a heart-breaking incident arose at Bower Ponds, when a young boy waded into the water while surrounded by scores of other people.

He soon became distressed and went under. Emergency crews were summoned immediately, but by the time they arrived, their rescue efforts had essentially become a body-recovery operation.

Sometimes, even the best planning cannot fully protect people from disaster on the water.

Years ago, a group of teenage boys went canoeing in Banff National Park.

They took every reasonable precaution, including diligently wearing their life jackets. But sudden high mountain winds apparently overturned their boats.

Their bodies were soon found, floating in the water.

Life jackets kept them afloat, but could not protect them from hypothermia.

Even the confines of a swimming pool, surrounded by lifeguards or family can be dangerous. One young boy drowned at a public pool in Olds several years ago, with paid lifeguards nearby.

Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell has detailed how home swimming pools are more dangerous to children than having a gun in the house.

This month, the Canadian Lifesaving Society reported that water deaths rose by almost 10 per cent last year, and child drownings nearly doubled.

Toddlers are “magnetically attracted to water” society spokesman Barbara Byers told The Canadian Press last week and death can happen in as little as 10 to 20 seconds.

Good times and fellowship can foster a dangerous sense of immunity, especially on the much-anticipated first long weekend of the summer.

When relaxation and familiarity are joined by liquor — the all-too-frequent lubricant of sociability — death can arise in an instant.

Across Canada, police will be checking boats this weekend, ensuring that revellers are properly licensed and equipped to enjoy the holiday safely and legally.

As always, however, there will be too few officers patrolling our vast aquatic resources to deter more than a fraction of the scofflaw drinkers.

Every year, police are obliged to turn from patrolling the waters to investigating aquatic deaths.

Every summer, people who insist on boozing in boats fall in and drown.

Police report that an alarming number of men who drown this way — and it’s almost always men – are recovered with their belt buckles open and their zippers undone.

They drank too much beer in a boat, stood up to relieve themselves over the gunwale, fell and drowned within seconds.

Distraught friends — most often drinking themselves — were powerless to help them.

By law, and by any understanding of common sense, drinking in a small pleasure craft is foolish, illegal and potentially deadly.

This weekend, let’s responsibly enjoy the vast outdoors that Canadians revere so much. Let’s make memories that will last not just a long weekend, but will be treasured for a long lifetime.

Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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