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River near Ripon took two lives during 2011

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POSTED May 22, 2012 12:43 a.m.

RIPON – Don’t let the serene nature of the Stanislaus River fool you.

Approached without caution and respect, it can kill without a second thought. It’s fast-moving, near-freezing water that can fluctuate on a daily basis, serving as a platform for fun or fright depending on the circumstances.

During 2011 the Ripon Consolidated Fire District pulled two bodies from the river including one that ended up getting caught in an undertow and pulled into a hole for several days before naturally dislodging.

While it can provide endless recreational opportunities and a great way to cool off during the summer, Fire Chief Dennis Bitters warns that changes in water levels can both expose and cover obstacles and alter the hydraulics of the river itself. He noted that even though the surface might seem calm, various layers of water beneath can be moving at different speeds and prove to be dangerous to those not properly equipped.

“I take walks along the river every morning and sometimes the levels can change a couple of feet within a 24-hour period – it all depends on how much water they’re letting out,” Bitters said. “It’s an ever-changing environment, and just because you floated it last week doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the same river you’re setting out to float this week.

“And the water is a lot colder than people expect. Even though it can be really hot outside, hypothermia can start to set in and your reactions will start to slow down – that can be really dangerous when you’re talking about swimming.”

During the peak of the summer Bitters estimates that his crews are out at Caswell Memorial State Park several times a week primarily to pull out rafters that don’t know what it is that they’re doing.

With tree branches submerged and bushes along the side, those trying to float the river in rafts that aren’t suitable – inflatable swimming pools and the like – often find themselves in trouble when they get torn and end up in the water without any lifejackets.

That same scenario unfolded last year when a mother and her two small children ended up fighting the current when their inflatable raft tore along the bank, leaving Bitters’ crew with the job to rescue them.

“We have alternate currents out there in the river and it causes some different scenarios where people end up getting caught in waters where they feel they can’t swim,” he said. “Once they lose the ability to out-swim the current they’re at the mercy of the river and there are snags and debris piles and holes in the river that draw you down.

“Looks can be very deceiving. A lot of people will think that they’re going to float down to the next beach at Caswell and all of a sudden they can’t get over there and they’re out of the park. Then you end up fighting the current and you don’t want to do that.”

Bitters recommends lifejackets for those who are going to venture into the waters, and if somebody were to get carried off by the current he urges them to stay as calm as possible – panicking will only exert valuable energy that can be used to get to safety.

“Just let the current take you and try to steer yourself during the process,” he said. “You’re not going to overcome it or out-swim it, so the best thing to do is try and guide yourself to a safe place – a tree or something towards the shore. Once you start panicking you’re going to go under.”

Those planning to float the river, Bitters said, should use strong, professional-quality rafts built to withstand the rigors and unpredictability of Mother Nature. Lifejackets are also strongly recommended.


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