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With three drownings in week, Spokane River safety starts with life jacket

Dave Jackson floats the Spokane River through Peaceful Valley on Wednesday  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Dave Jackson floats the Spokane River through Peaceful Valley on Wednesday (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

With the weather warming up and Independence Day at hand, folks will be headed out in droves to area waters to boat, fish or just cool off over the holiday weekend. While any of those water-bound activities are approved, recommended outdoors recreation, they all come with necessary precautions to ensure a safe, healthy good time for all.

Wear sunscreen. Hydrate. Moderate alcohol intake.

And above all else: if you’re headed out on a boat, kayak, paddleboard or tube this weekend – or any – wear a life jacket.

Already this summer, there have been three drowning deaths in the Spokane River. None of the victims was wearing a life jacket.

The body of a 61-year-old Hauser Lake man who fell into the river in Corbin Park while kayaking Saturday evening was found Sunday morning, the second drowning at the Post Falls park in as many days, according to the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office.

Authorities said he fell into the river after launching a kayak holding two life jacket-wearing children. The kayak hit some rapids and all three occupants were sent overboard. The children reached shore. The man, who was not wearing a life jacket, didn’t.

That incident followed an incident Friday evening in the same area, when a 35-year-old Spokane Valley man drowned while trying to retrieve his wife and child from a kayak that had capsized at Corbin Park. The woman and child, who were wearing life jackets, made it to safety. The man, who was not wearing a life jacket, didn’t.

Jaspreet Turna, 28, drowned while tubing the river on June 23, the medical examiner said Thursday. Turna was floating the river with a group of friends when his tube struck a bridge support near People’s Park in Spokane and he was thrown from the tube. At least one other member of the group unsuccessfully tried to rescue Turna. He was not wearing a life jacket either.

And on Tuesday, KHQ reported a story of two women who rescued a 4-year-old on the Little Spokane River at Pine River Park.

Unfortunately, these stories are common during the summer months – but also largely preventable by simply wearing a flotation device.

Dave Jackson, 63, a teacher at Lewis and Clark High School, lives on the Spokane River in West Central. Jackson is an avid floater and estimates he’s on the river 50-90 times a summer, some times three times a day.

“I’m kind of pretty regularly on the water or down around the water, four or five hours a day,” Jackson said.

Jackson was pulling out of the river on Tuesday as police and rescue were investigating and cleaning up after Turna’s body was located.

“I was there right after they pulled him out,” Jackson said. “And I did see the guys prior.”

While in the river earlier in the day, Jackson called out to the three men and asked if they had life jackets. But like many that Jackson encounters without flotation devices, he was waved off.

“I’m not the river cop. I don’t want to be,” he said. “I mean, I want to be on the river for pleasure and relaxation and not to cause stress and anxiety but occasionally I just, I get in a mood.”

Later, at the scene, Jackson recounted consoling and talking with one of the men that was with Turna.

“I said, ‘This probably is not the right time or place for me to say this, but I … just want to say, I’m 63 years old. I float the river every day, sometimes two times, sometimes three times, since 2014, and maybe you know ‘X’ number of hundred times …’ and he finished my sentence. He said, ‘And you’ve always worn a life jacket.’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ ”

Conditions on the river are such that anyone who capsizes without a jacket or flotation device could find themselves in trouble.

“You know, this water is big right now,” Jackson said. “There’s a couple of spots that you hit right now that the river will just take you to, that you don’t hit in July and August.

“It’s kind of unforgiving, and you know it’s big and it’s deep. And it’s fast.”

If you aren’t paying attention, or having too much fun, or had one too many, it can be a recipe for disaster. But those situations can be mitigated by wearing a properly fitting life jacket.

Jackson estimates 75% of people he encounters on the river are conscientious and wearing life jackets.

“You know, one or two beers and all it takes is to get, you know, flipped over backward – which you can get flipped over backward anytime on that river, any month, period. And you take a gulp of water and you panic and you don’t have a jacket on. I mean, good luck. I don’t know how you’d survive.”

Jackson wants people to enjoy the river, but do it safely so they can return to enjoy it another day.

“We’re so lucky to have this amazing resource in our city,” he said. “It’s the reason we’re here. The river is the reason Spokane exists. It is the vein, the lifeblood, the source.”

Dave Nichols can be reached at (509) 828-9311 or daven@spokesman.com.

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