The South River canoe/kayak launch at the Francis Keville Bridge in Marshfield.

As a kayaker, I’m feeling heavy-hearted these days. First I got word that an acquaintance from college had drowned in a kayaking accident on the Colorado River. Not long after, there was a similar incident on the Indian Head River, right here on the South Shore. Both of the young men who lost their lives were experienced paddlers; both were wearing the appropriate safety gear. But they each encountered circumstances they hadn’t expected.

Many of my friends are kayakers, so you can imagine how my heart sank when, one morning last month, my father stepped into my room to ask if I had heard about the drowning on the Indian Head. A news report brought momentary relief — it was no one I knew — but then a fog of sadness moved in. In both of these incidents, I knew the river better than I knew the victim. But that doesn’t diminish the tragedy. Perhaps, whether we knew the person or not, we all share the sense of loss when his life, so full of promise, meets a tragic end.

Before I understood how dangerous it was, I used to swim by myself in the South River. If you walk through the dunes at Marshfield’s Rexhame Beach, you’ll come to a sandy area along the river’s edge where the water is shallow and often warm — perfect for swimming on a summer day. There is a stony beach, with plenty of room to lay out a towel or two, and unless a fisherman has already staked claim to the area for the day, you are practically guaranteed privacy. Not many people even realize how close to the town beach the South River flows.

When swimming in the South River — or any river, for that matter — you must watch out for the current. At times, the tide will be slack and the current won’t feel strong, but at other times, the outgoing tide will whisk you downstream and out into the middle of the channel before you even realize what has happened.

One day a couple of years ago, I decided to spend the afternoon alone at the South River beach. It wasn’t the first time I’d gone swimming there by myself. In fact, I had already visited that particular stretch of river several times that summer, always alone. Those prior visits must have been during slack tides, for I’d never had a problem with the current. But this time, just stepping into the water, I could sense how strong the current was. The tide was coming in, and just wading in up to my knees I had trouble keeping my footing.

Still, I reasoned, the water was shallow, and the banks of the river were not so high as to prevent me from climbing up onto them from the water, if the need were to present itself. The sun was hot, and having just hauled all of my beach gear through the dunes, I couldn’t bear the thought of trudging back to the car unrefreshed. Instead, I devised a little game: I would wade, against the current, as far downstream as I could, then bend down into the water, stretch out as if to swim, and let the current carry me upstream. When I got as far upstream as I wanted to go, I’d just put my feet down and wade back.

The game worked well. I made several trips up and down a small stretch of river, relaxing in the warm water, yet staying close to shore, ever aware of the current’s strong pull. Walking against the tide wasn’t easy, but the payoff — two or three minutes of effortless swimming — more than justified the work. Each time I repeated this routine, my confidence grew. With each repetition, I would allow myself to swim a little further out into the middle of the channel, and a little further upstream. At times, I had to exit the river to make way for passing boats, but the sound of their motors gave me ample warning of their arrival.

I began to tire of the long, difficult walk required for each short swim, but resolved to repeat it once more before heading home. I waded as far downstream as I could before turning back to yield to the water’s flow. The route had become predictable, so for variety, I flipped onto my back and let the river carry me upstream, head-first and blind to all but the sky. The water felt so good, so refreshing . . . my mind began to wander. Concerns for safety melted into transcendental reverie. For a moment, I lost track of time.

Then, with a start, my thoughts snapped back to the present. With a shiver of dread, I flipped back onto my stomach. As I’d suspected, the current had carried me much further upstream than I would have liked. Plus I had floated out into the middle of the channel.

My first reaction was to panic and start swimming directly toward shore — a nearly impossible task in so strong a current. After a few strokes, I began to tire, and luckily, before a second wave of panic had a chance to rise up, reason stepped in. I began swimming at an angle, half floating, hoping that as the incoming tide carried me upstream, I could slowly but surely make my way to the shore.

I was scolding myself for being so irresponsible — for swimming alone, with no way to get help if I needed it — when I remembered why I had deemed it safe enough to swim by myself in the first place. The river was shallow. I could always put my feet down. By then I was much closer to shore, so I tried it. The water was only four feet deep! I planted one foot firmly and then the other, and — relieved and considerably shaken — walked safely back to shore.

We can’t always put our feet down. Most of our local rivers have strong currents and unpredictable changes in depth. Motor boats often whip around corners with no concern for the swimmer, fisherman or canoeist. We can take our chances, but it is better to be prepared and play it safe.

Thus, a few guidelines for summer safety on the rivers:

•Never go boating or swimming alone. Bring a friend, or at least choose a spot where there are some other people around. A whistle can be a helpful way to call for help.

•Know the terrain. Consult a tide chart, study a map, take some time to observe traffic patterns, and ask a local expert for details you might otherwise miss.

•Consider the unexpected possibilities. Extreme weather — such as the prodigious rains we’ve experienced all season — can render a waterway unpredictable and dangerous. Even if you’re familiar with the route you plan to take, consider how the shifting weather patterns may affect it.

•Carry personal flotation devices (PFDs). When boating, the law requires that you always have them with you, even if you choose not to wear them. Children must wear them at all times. Having flotation devices on hand for fatigued swimmers is also wise.

•Have an escape plan. What if your boat tips over? What if the current begins to carry you off downstream? Know what to do, and practice your “escape.”

Boating and swimming in our local rivers are delightful summer activities. Be careful out there.

by Kezia Bacon, Special To The Mariner
July 1998

Kezia Bacon’s articles are provided by the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.