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A few precautions could prevent tragedies at lake

As the search continued early last Tuesday for two Las Vegas men missing since July 20 at Lake Mead, another swimmer disappeared.

It marked the third disappearance in two days.

Unfortunately, this summer missing swimmers at the National Recreation Area have become an all-too-common occurrence.

With the year barely half over, we have already tripled the number of drownings at the lake from last year and exceeded the total from the year before.

According to Christie Vanover, public affairs officer for the National Park Service, there were three drownings in 2013 and eight in 2012. She attributes last year’s decrease to the availability of free life jackets in popular swimming areas.

None of the swimmers who died was wearing a life jacket. Actually, in most instances those who drowned at the recreation area were not wearing life jackets.

“The dangers are slightly different if you are on the lake as opposed to the river,” said Izzy Collett, director and owner of Desert Adventures and chairman of the Lower Colorado River Water Trail Alliance. “But the common denominator in drownings each year is definitely the lack of (personal flotation device) or life vests. Almost every instance we hear of involves someone without a life vest. The loss of life is so unnecessary and so preventable,” she said.

I agree.

Collett, who has spent countless hours on the lake and river, said the lake is dangerous because it is deceptively big with little protection from the wind and weather.

“Summer monsoons move in within minutes, and can make the waters of Lake Mead behave more like an ocean, with larger swells and huge waves that can sink houseboats.”

She said people think they can simply jump in the water to get something that fell overboard or swim in calm waters. In seconds the conditions can change and they can get swept away.

The primary danger from the river below the dam is the vast difference in temperature between the air and the water.

Collett was on the same raft as me when I toured the newly designated Black Canyon Water Trail, and that’s when I first heard about how dangerous the temperature difference could be. A few splashes from the 54 F water is refreshing, but with temperatures in the canyon floors reaching 110 F to 120 F, you can experience shock if you decide to go swimming or fall into the water, she said.

Your reflexes also can kick in, causing you to gasp for air or hyperventilate, which can have deadly results if you are underwater.

But that vast difference also can lead to hypothermia.

Because water is very good at transferring heat from your body, body heat is lost much faster in cold water than in cold air. Similarly, heat loss from your body is much faster if your clothes are wet, according to the Mayo Clinic.

As hypothermia sets in, confusion increases and coordination and energy decrease.

According to the Mayo Clinic, someone with hypothermia usually isn’t aware of his or her condition because the symptoms often begin gradually. Also, the confused thinking associated with hypothermia prevents self-awareness.

Alcohol also can play a part in lake mishaps, especially during the summer when it is so hot in the park.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that alcohol is a factor in as many as 50 percent of deaths associated with water recreation. Nearly one-third of boating fatalities involve alcohol use.

Doctors from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, which helps people with alcohol and substance abuse and addiction, say alcohol interferes with balance, coordination and judgment and these effects are heightened by sun exposure and heat.

In other words, the combination of heat with even minimal amounts of alcohol can put you in harm’s way.

It’s not only boaters and swimmers that need to be careful when enjoying the amenities at the recreation area.

One woman died and a man was injured July 12 in a rollover accident on Lakeshore Road. And on June 23, one man died and two others were airlifted to a hospital after a head-on crash on Northshore Road.

There also have been several plane crashes in the past month.

While summer is an ideal time to enjoy the great outdoors, especially the myriad activities at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, visitors to the park need to be careful and take precaution to avoid accidents. Life jackets, slower speeds and clear heads are just a few of the things that could help prevent tragedies.

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