The Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission’s Ed Fite doesn’t know for sure why this week has seen such an unusual number of river-related deaths in Oklahoma.
“It’s got me scratching what hair I have left on the top of my head, trying to figure that out,” Fite said.
What he does know, however, is how preventable tragic accidents can be.
“In my 30 years, I’ve never recovered a drowning victim’s body that was wearing a lifejacket,” he said.
Yesterday’s drowning in Tahlequah was the third this week. Fite says it’s likely alcohol played a role in that death.
With heat conditions reminiscent of last summer, river levels are much lower than average.
“I don’t know if we’ve sent the wrong message to the public,” he said, “that it’s okay to go out and wade and swim and boat without a life jacket because of the conditions of our streams and rivers.”
He says, that’s certainly not the case.
He talks about three main causes of drowning on the river.
“Alcohol or drugs is usually the major causation for drowning,” he said.
A close second is neglecting to wear a lifejacket. Third is horseplay.
Oklahoma law prohibits publicly consuming alcohol that’s in excess of 3.2% alcohol by weight. That includes rivers and lakes.
“People floating the Illinois River tend to bring with them alcoholic beverages that exceed the 3.2 restriction,” Fite said. He says the OSRC strictly enforces this.
If you want to bring 3.2 beer to the river, that’s permissible, but Fite says it must be in a plastic or aluminum container.
“The young folks are skirting the law,” Fite said. “They’re bringing Jell-o shots.”
He says the Commission is careful about watching for these kinds of violations, which also include bringing flasks or pre-mixed drinks disguised by juice or Gatorade bottles.
A Strong Suggestion
Fite says as for the suggestion to wear lifejackets, options abound.
“Manufacturers have designed lifejackets that are the types that self-inflate when they’re exposed to water,” he said. “If somebody falls in the water, they go off—if somebody’s a boater and doesn’t want to be constricted.”
He says there are also specially designed options for women, and for kayakers who need to use their arms.
“I guess I’m on my soapbox today after three drownings,” he said. “Please, if you want to do your family a favor, go out and buy a lifejacket or personal flotation device, that’s adequately sized and comfortable, for your children.”