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Wisconsin River groups call on boaters, swimmers to take more precautions

SPRING GREEN (WKOW) — Even after a dangerous summer on the Wisconsin River, including two drownings, the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway (FLOW) noticed most people on the river in their area still weren’t taking the proper precautions.

The group’s president Timm Zumm has an infectious enthusiasm for the river that he said has fueled his passion to keep those who come to enjoy it safe.

“It kind of scares me when I see too many, in fact I would even say the majority of people not wearing a Coast Guard approved PFD [personal flotation device],” he said.

That’s what Zumm witnessed over the weekend, when he went out to observe how his community was behaving on the water.

He posted about his experience in an attempt to spread the word about the dangers surrounding these popular sand bars.

“It’s smooth as glass and it looks like a pond and they come down here and they have no idea how strong the current is,” Zumm said.

He recommends all boaters, especially paddlers, wear life jackets on the river and most swimmers too. Even those wading along the sandbars, he said should be taking precautions if they’re unfamiliar with the area.

“That’s literally like quicksand,” he said.

Zumm said many people have fallen into the river after losing their footing walking along the edge of sandbar. He said especially those facing down river can have steep drop offs and it can be difficult to get back on.

“If they’re in the current, they use up their energy real quick and even an Olympic swimmer can have a challenge doing that,” he said.

Executive Director of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board, Mark Cupp said it happens all too often on this stretch of river, causing a drowning in Spring Green in 2016.

“If you don’t have a life vest on, you can’t swim, you hit a drop off and that’s a recipe for trouble,” he said.

Zumm said that’s why FLOW worked to get kiosks across the area, offering free life vests for adults and children as they hit the water.

“There’s no good excuse not to have a child wear one,” he said.

Still, Zumm said this shouldn’t scare people away from enjoying the river or its sandbars. He recommends keeping children in the life vests at all times but he said adults can be flexible based on their experience.

“Once you’ve confirmed that it’s just real gradual with no drop offs well then you can take the vest off and relax a little bit more,” he said.

Zumm said if you’re planning to swim in the river, make sure you’re doing it upstream from a sandbar rather than downstream to avoid losing control in the current.

“People say the river is unpredictable,” he said. “I say it’s very predictable when you know the tips and tricks of how to read the river.”

Most importantly, Zumm said if you’re unsure how deep or how strong the current is in one area, use a personal flotation device.

“If you end up a mile down river you’re alive,” he said.

Both Zumm and Cupp said in their 30 years working to keep the riverway safe, they’ve never seen a drowning involving someone who was properly wearing a life vest.

Michelle Alfini

Reporter, WKOW

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