A dangerous summer for swimmers begs the question: Do we need to change our lake culture?

August 13, 2012

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As a kid, I was lucky enough to grow up on the East Coast, but also have a bevy of relatives who lived in Southern California. Because of my dual-coast citizen status, I got the chance to spend summers in Los Angeles, where I experienced one particular cultural phenomenon that few outside of certain coastal towns get to be a part of: Ocean camp, where you spend all day on the beach and in the water, downing Gatorade and reapplying zinc oxide.

Sound idyllic? It basically was. But under the trappings of the best summer a 7-year-old could ask for lay important life skills for anyone who grows up around a major body of water. Ocean camp required early morning swims out to a buoy sans a wet suit, time spent treading water out in the ocean in huge kelp beds, and lessons on how to dive under a wave and not get smacked down. For those who live in beach communities, this is routine stuff, but considered necessary, both for everyone's quality of life and for safety. If you're going to spend all day at the beach with your kids, you want to make sure they understand how the water works and how to interact with it. 

But as we've seen on Lake Michigan in recent years, ocean camp isn't something people outside of certain warm climes even know exists. It does look, however, to be something that perhaps the region should look into.

"Since mid-June, 12 people have drowned to death in Illinois and Northwest Indiana compared with 15 total drowning deaths in Illinois in all of 2011, according to data collected by the Chicago Park District and Lurie Children's Hospital," the RedEye reported in early August. That's not including the recent high-profile death of University of Chicago doctor Dr. Donald Liu, who drowned rescuing two 12-year-old boys a few weekends ago.

Jody Johnston, Park Supervisor of Holland, MI, State Park, joins Eight Forty-Eight to explain how other beaches on Lake Michigan deal with potentially dangerous waters.

Why the high death toll? Most are attributing the rise to the particularly hot summer that has made more people head for the lake, coupled with strong storm systems that create choppier water conditions.

How do rip currents work exactly? Here's a helpful video that explains better than I can:

And some of the most helpful tips I found about dealing with rip currents, per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, basically indicate that you should do as little as possible when you find yourself in one:

  • "Don’t fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
  • If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
  • If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself: Face the shore, wave your arms and yell for help.
  • If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 9-1-1. Throw the rip current victim something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape. Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current."

(Also — don't use the terms rip tide or undertow interchangeably with rip current. They're not the same.)

But even when equipped with this helpful information, it's unclear if just educating people with facts will make much of a difference. I'd wager that the most likely thing to really alter the way people interact with the water is to take this "lake" culture that those in the Great Lakes region partake in for a few months a year and really embrace it. It might just be a lake, but as we've seen this summer, it's just as dangerous as any ocean — but full of people who know far less about it than they should.