Lifeguards warn of swimming dangers in river

In just four days, four people have died from drowning in Wisconsin, three of them on the Wisconsin River.

On Friday an 18-year-old woman drowned in a quarry in Redgranite, and a 29-year-old man and his 4-year-old son drowned on the Wisconsin River near the town of Dekorra. On Sunday a 13-year-old drowned in the Wisconsin River near Merrill.

There was also a 21-year-old man who drowned on the Wisconsin River near the Dells about a month ago and a woman drowned in Onalaska early last week.

Local lifeguards said the river can be very dangerous if swimmers aren’t careful, and your age and swimming ability don’t matter.

Before Felicity Baldwin takes her four kids to the beach she said she needs to know she has an extra pair of eyes.

“I never come alone,” Baldwin said.

“We all come with her to make sure there’s enough people here for all four kids,” said Mercedes Vandaver, a friend who came with Baldwin to help watch her kids.

Baldwin had two extra sets of watchful eyes with her Tuesday at Pettibone Beach, and she said when her four young children are in the water, so are the adults.

“I try to keep them like an arms length of me when we’re in the water, just so if they go under we can, someone’s there to get them,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin said she might be a bit more cautious with her kids when she brings them to the river versus the local pool, saying she doesn’t let them go in water any deeper than about a foot.

“Just because there’s drop spots here versus in a pool,” Baldwin said.

In La Crosse both the Pettibone Beach and Black River Beach are staffed by a lifeguard every day of the week. Those lifeguards say it is just as important, if not more important, to know what is under the water as it is to know what is on top of the water.

“They have a lot of fast currents, especially when the river starts to rise, the undercurrent picks up a lot, so it might look calm on top, but the water underneath is going really fast so it can sweep you away if you’re not expecting it,” said Samantha Fitzpatrick, aquatics coordinator with the city of La Crosse.

Fitzpatrick said the river can bring lots of debris downstream with it as well, so it’s important to always be paying attention to your surroundings, and she said if you do happen to be swept away with the current, “be able to swim, even if it’s downstream, over to the side kind of work your way at an angle to get to some sort of safety and then work your way back up from there.”

At La Crosse beaches there are no flotation devices allowed, that includes for kids. That is a rule Baldwin isn’t a fan of, but she said she is just keeping her kids closer to her now.

Fitzpatrick said floaties can give a false sense of safety and make people think they are stronger swimmers than they actually are.

Fitzpatrick also said when the river level rises, it becomes even more dangerous. She said when you’re swimming in the river, make sure to know your limits.