Thursday afternoon was hot and sunny at Barber Park as the Cooper family prepared to float the Boise River, a perfect day for Savannah Cooper, 11, and Cameron Cooper, 8, to cruise down the chilly waterway for the first time.
Savannah, Cameron and both their parents put on their life jackets as they got ready to embark. Erin Cooper, their mother, said she feels safer that way.
“I feel just a lot more comfortable being out there with my kids knowing that they have to wear their life vests,” she said.
Idaho law requires children 14 and younger to wear life jackets, and the law specifies manually propelled craft such as canoes and rafts, as well as jet skis. Although vests are not required for adults, Boise Fire Division Chief of Special Operations Paul Roberts said he recommends water recreationists in general and floaters of all ages wear life jackets.
It’s a message that seems to pack extra meaning this summer. In July, there were multiple drownings at Lucky Peak Lake. There have been at least two drownings on the Salmon River, and a man went missing in the Payette River.
Idaho ranks among the top 10 states with the highest rates of drowning deaths per 100,000 people, according to CDC data. Between 2015 and 2019, Idaho saw an average of 1.74 drowning deaths per 100,000 population, or about 30 people per year.
There have not been any Boise River fatalities this season, but Roberts said they’ve seen higher numbers of both emergency and non-emergency calls from people floating. Roberts said that on a busy day, the fire department may receive half a dozen emergency phone calls and even more calls for service, which stem from incidents such as individuals stuck on islands or rafts caught in tree branches.
Drinking, young children among concerns for fire department
Roberts said one of his biggest concerns this year has been families bringing infants and toddlers to float the river.
“This is alarming to the fire department that we’re seeing a number of people choosing to float the river with their infants,” Roberts said. “Infants cannot wear a life jacket appropriately, and I can with confidence tell you that if that floater experiences any sort of problem that knocks him out of the raft, it will likely end in a tragedy.”
Roberts said there is not a specific age at which it becomes safe for a child to float the river, but he recommends parents wait at least until the youngster can wear a life jacket properly. The U.S. Coast Guard advises against bringing infants who weigh less than 18 pounds on recreational boats, as they may not fit in approved life jackets properly.
Drinking and engaging in water sports also can be a dangerous combination, Roberts said. The Ada County Sheriff’s Office prohibits drinking within 100 feet of the Boise River, but it’s no secret how much that’s ignored, Roberts said.
“There seems to be a lot of drinking that’s occurring on the Boise River when folks are floating,” he said.
Roberts said his teams don’t collect information on how many people they rescue who had been drinking, since they are not law enforcement officers.
Next summer, Roberts said the fire department wants to collect more data, including how many people are floating the river and how many of them wear life jackets.
Incidents at Lucky Peak, on Boise River
At Lucky Peak Lake, two recreationists died in July, including 16-year-old Bobby Sichulailuck, whose body was recovered on Aug. 3. A 49-year-old paddleboarder drowned near Spring Shores Marina.
A 46-year-old swimmer likely drowned while boating with friends on July 31. His body has not been recovered.
Roberts said that although Lucky Peak is not technically in Boise, the fire department assists with rescue operations when a swimmer goes missing. After 90 minutes, though, the operation changes from a “rescue” to a “recovery,” and then the fire department no longer assists.
Although there have not been any deaths on the Boise River this summer, Roberts said there have been injuries and close calls.
He cited one instance in which a group of floaters tied their rafts together but were split by a bridge piling. One person fell out and was pinned underwater against the piling and caught in the rope tying the tubes together. Boise Fire Department staff were nearby and able to intervene quickly.
“Fortunately the crew was actually right there doing another call when that occurred, and they were able to cut that person free immediately,” Roberts said. “Had we not been out there, I can only imagine what kind of negative outcome could have occurred.”
Another incident occurred on Aug. 7, when a bridge jumper sent two floaters to the hospital. Once again, Boise Fire Department swift water rescue units happened to be on shore monitoring the float and were able to help quickly.
On the very first day of float season this year, Boise Fire Department dive teams performed 14 rescues, four of which were life-saving or life-threatening, according to a tweet.
Roberts urges water safety measures for recreationists
Roberts said he offers the same advice to people swimming and boating at Lucky Peak as he does to floaters on the Boise River: wear a life jacket, avoid drinking too much and be aware of your surroundings.
If you are in an emergency situation, Roberts said you should call 911 and give your specific location so rescue crews know where to respond. For non-emergencies, floaters should contact Boise Parks and Recreation, Ada County Parks and Waterways or the rental company.
Advice from the city of Boise’s website about how to stay safe while floating includes understanding your abilities and the conditions of the river, never floating alone and wearing the proper gear, including life jackets, protective footwear, and helmets for kayakers and canoeists.
“It doesn’t really take much to cause a disaster,” Roberts said. “We encourage people to not just have the life jackets, but have them on.”
The Cooper family takes this advice to heart: Savannah and Cameron said that even if wearing a life jacket were optional, they think their mom would still make them do it.
“That’s probably true,” Erin Cooper said.