Think Out Loud

Officials urge caution as rivers run fast and cold this summer

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
July 8, 2022 8:38 p.m. Updated: July 18, 2022 11:32 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, July 11

Lifeguard Andrew Fox practices a river rescue at Glenn Otto Park in Troutdale.

Lifeguard Andrew Fox practices a river rescue at Glenn Otto Park in Troutdale.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB


Many Oregonians are drawn to river recreation in the summertime, whether that means swimming, kayaking, boating or floating. This year, heavy spring rains and snowpack mean rivers are running fast and cold, even when the weather is hot. That can lead to swimmers getting swept away by strong currents or experiencing cold shock. There have already been rescues, and some drownings, in the region’s rivers this summer. We talk with Shawn Mullen, a captain with the Clackamas Fire District about his experience with water rescues and how to stay safe.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Temperatures are going to soar into the 90s in much of the Northwest today, which could send some folks to seek comfort in the many rivers that flow throughout the region. But as always, drowning and other dangers are a real possibility. It’s especially true when many rivers are running cold and high after a snowy and rainy spring. Shawn Mullen is a captain with the Clackamas Fire District and the head of their Water and Rope Rescue Program. He joins us now to talk about the dangers inherent in river recreation. Shawn Mullen, welcome.

Shawn Mullen: Thank you, I appreciate it.

Miller: Where are you right now?

Mullen: I am in the Clackamas river as we speak.

Miller: In a boat in the river?

Mullen: Well, standing on the shore here, we’re doing some training, which we do every Monday.

Miller: What are the levels like right now, and what’s the temperature like?

Mullen: The river is not that high, it’s actually dropping quite a bit. But the temperature is still very cold, which obviously poses problems to swimmers and recreators.

Miller: How does the temperature affect what happens when someone ends up in the water, when they didn’t intend to be in the water?

Mullen: They call it cold shock. It’s just that rapid shock to your body, that temperature change that your body is not ready for. It can send you into a panic, make you take some unexpected deep breaths, and you take a little water with that, and things can change pretty rapidly.

Miller: What is your jurisdiction with the Clackamas Fire District when it comes to water rescues?


Mullen: So mostly the Clackamas River and the Willamette, but we respond to all the water in this area. So we’ve been all the way down to the Santiam down in Salem, Timothy Lake, Lake Oswego, but primarily Clackamas and Willamette rivers.

Miller: Are there certain areas that you find that people seem to have the most problems year after year?

Mullen: There are. Luckily, there’s a company, American Medical Response, AMR, which has stepped up and has some lifeguards for the season in those areas, which is Oxbow Park and High Rocks in the Clackamas. That helps immensely.

Miller: What had the last few years been like in terms of the need for river rescues?

Mullen: Quite a bit. It varies in severity of course, but the common deal is someone will put in too late in the day, or in a watercraft that’s not meant to be used on a river, and they find themselves offshore, either in the dark or someplace they’re not familiar with, and they just can’t get out.

Miller: How long might it be from when you get a call to when you can actually be there on the scene?

Mullen: Again, that depends a lot on river levels, and obviously where on the river they are. For us, a lot of problems is we get the call, but the location is still a bit of a question mark. Either the caller doesn’t know exactly where they are, or the victims don’t know exactly where they are. It can go anywhere from 15-20 minutes, up to hours if they don’t know the location of where they’re at.

Miller: Hours, when minutes really could be crucial.

Mullen: Correct. Most of our rescues are done by jet boat, but a lot of times we can’t, because of location or river levels. And at that point, it’s a raft rescue, and we may have to float an hour to get to the victim.

Miller: So what do you want people to keep in mind in general if they’re going to be boating, or swimming, or just even playing near water?

Mullen: Knowing your location, knowing your abilities, not underestimating the body of water that you’re in and around. Always wearing PFD, personal flotation devices, life vests, especially for kids. It’s too easy for a kid to be onshore and the parent turns their back, and next thing you know they’re in the water, and they’re out of reach. Those are the biggest components. And of course being responsible, especially when it comes to drinking alcohol.

Miller: What do you say to people who they’ve heard the warnings you’ve just laid out, but they say “I’m a good swimmer, I don’t need to wear the PFD today.” What do you say?

Mullen: You gotta always expect the unexpected. And it doesn’t take much. A simple cramp in a body of water you can’t stand up in can take the best swimmer down very very quickly. So I would say just be very cautious with what you’re getting into.

Miller: There was a tragic story recently about somebody who tried to rescue a struggling swimmer, this was in the Columbia, and then ended up drowning himself. What should lay people keep in mind if they’re attempting a water rescue?

Mullen: It’s a very dangerous situation. We have the adage you’ll see a lot, especially around swimming pools and whatnot: row, throw, go. Meaning that our first course of action is to get a boat to that person, row out to that person. You can’t do that, throw something to them, a personal flotation device or a throw bag.

Going out and rescuing the victim as a swimmer is our last resort because it’s so dangerous, so unpredictable. Obviously they’re out there, they got in trouble at that spot. So you may also encounter trouble there. Not to mention just trying to rescue the panicked, disabled swimmer.

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