GUEST COMMENTARY: Play at beaches, but play it safe

2012-07-26T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Play at beaches, but play it safeBy Costa Dillon nwitimes.com
July 26, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Lake Michigan can be a wonderful place to swim and surf, but it can also be a dangerous place. The National Park Service reminds visitors to use care when swimming in the lake. We do our best to inform the public of what they need to do to protect themselves, but we cannot make the park free of hazards.

Beaches with lifeguards are available most summer days at the national lakeshore’s West Beach and at Indiana Dunes State Park. However, lifeguards are not a substitute for personal safety.

Lifeguards cannot be on every section of the national lakeshore’s 15 miles of beach, every hour of the day, every day of the year, so it is inevitable that the majority of visitors will be on the beach when no lifeguards are on duty. Visitors should be alert to water conditions and make prudent decisions based upon lake conditions, weather and personal abilities.

The public can enter Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore from any point along the park’s shoreline from Gary to Michigan City. Warnings, signs, or employees cannot be everywhere. This is why the National Park Service works to give the public information that they can use to make good safety decisions when there are no park employees, signs, or warnings in their area.

Parents and adults should watch children at all times while on the beach.

When in the water, keep children in sight and within arm’s length at all times. Many drownings are of children who were unattended, who were far from adults, or who simply stepped off a sandbar and could not swim.

Contrary to popular belief, most drownings in the park are not the result of rip currents. Of the 18 drownings in the park since 1995, only one is attributed to a rip current. Drownings can and do occur under all lake conditions. We want the public to be aware of rip currents, but not to have a false sense of security that the lake is only dangerous during rip currents.

When waves are present, the danger to poor swimmers and children is increased. Our red and black signs at various locations are clear: do not enter the water when waves are breaking. Waves make swimming difficult, may cause disorientation, can knock waders off their feet, and can obscure the visibility of people under water. Never swim alone.

Weather websites and the news media convey when there is likely to be high waves or rip currents. Generally, this is any time there is a north wind. If the water is brown, don’t go in. Brown water obscures swimmers and may indicate poor water quality that could lead to illness. The National Park Service posts water quality readings weekly on the park website and sends this information to the news media from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

In an emergency, call (800) PARKTIP (800-727-5847) and tell the dispatcher where you are. Mobile 911 calls may go different places. (800) PARKTIP will reach the National Park Service emergency center, which operates 24/7.

Nationwide, drowning is the leading cause of death in national parks. Make sure the memories of your visit are good ones by following the guidelines for water safety.

Costa Dillon is superintendent of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

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