Rivers inviting, but pose dangers for swimmers

  • Residents cool off at the Tri-Town Beach in Whately on Tuesday. RECORDER STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • A group of rafters glides down the Connecticut River near the confluence of the Deerfield River. The bike path bridge can be seen in the background. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

For the Gazette
Published: 7/20/2016 5:00:57 AM

DEERFIELD — Despite a tranquil appearance, a peaceful swim in a local river on a hot day can turn deadly — fast.

“Every summer it seems like one or two people drown,” said Brian Yellen, president of the Deerfield River Watershed Association.

The latest drowning victim is 30-year-old Wilver Perez, a Springfield resident from Guatemala who worked at Nourse Farms, said Police Chief John Paciorek Jr.

According to the Northwestern district attorney’s office, Perez was swimming in the Connecticut River about 12:30 p.m. Saturday near the mouth of the Deerfield River, when he was caught in an eddy and drowned. A few hours later he was pronounced dead.

Mary Carey, communications director for the district attorney, said an investigation of the drowning continues. She said foul play isn’t suspected.

Paciorek said Perez and other farm workers jumped into the water to cool off during a break from picking strawberries. He also said alcohol was not a factor, and the place they entered the river is not accessible by the public.

“There’s no easy way to get in there,” he said. “It’s not a popular swimming spot.”

The dangers

Swimming in the Deerfield River may be inviting, especially during hot weather, but it can also be dangerous. At least two people have drowned in the Deerfield River over the last few years. One was a 26-year-old woman who was on an inner tube, and the other was a 20-year-old University of Massachusetts Lowell student who drowned while swimming.

A number of factors may contribute to someone running into trouble in the water. They include how well a person can swim, how fast the current is running and hidden dangers below the surface of the water.

Some say that rivers can be dangerous to swim in when the current is harnessed by hydroelectric systems, using dams and storage reservoirs to generate electricity.

There are 10 hydroelectric dams on the Deerfield River and nine dams on the Connecticut River main stem.

Andrea Donlon, river steward for the Connecticut River Water Council, said that if a river is not large, any amount of increase in water can significantly change the current.

“It may fluctuate as much as 4 feet,” she said, adding that in some cases, river flow can double.

“There are a lot of drownings in the Connecticut River every year,” she continued. “People get in situations where their swimming ability doesn’t match the conditions.”

Cliff Stevens, owner of Moxie Outdoor Adventures in Charlemont, said another safety concern occurs when two rivers converge and the current becomes unpredictable.

“Respect it; know your own abilities,” he said about swimming in rivers recreationally, even if they appear tranquil. “If you’re in a boat, put on a life jacket. Put your kids in a life jacket.”

Stay calm

As far as what actions people can take to prevent an emergency, Stevens said that if someone is swimming and feels water levels rising, the best thing to do is to swim, not walk, to shore as quickly as possible.

“If you were to be swept away, staying calm is very important,”  Stevens added. “People who panic in a riptide, same thing. Stay calm, be aware of your surroundings.”

The best thing to do to prevent an emergency situation, said Paciorek Jr., is to avoid swimming anywhere that isn’t managed by the town.

Instead, Douglas Finn, town administrator, suggested that residents swim at Tri-Town Beach, which the town helps manage specifically to provide a safe place to swim recreationally.

“Safety of swimmers and rafters on the river has been a perennial conversation,” Finn said. “We strongly recommend residents to make use of the beach.”

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