One of the best things about living in Alberta is that we get to enjoy all of the lakes, rivers and ponds across the province and use them as our own personal swimming holes. As an outdoor swimmer, it is important to know the additional hazards associated with doggy-paddling across a pond. After all, there are often no lifeguards in place when you are swimming outdoors, so only you are responsible for your own safety.
This week we will be looking at how to assess the safety of a wild swim location before you get in, and how to say safe while you are in the water.
Let’s start with what you should consider before you go swimming:
Find a location. Swimming outdoors isn’t as simple as seeing water and jumping in. Some places are better suited for swimming than others. And, the best place to find a local swimming location is to ask where people swim. It’s amazing how many locals–whether they swim or not–will know where to find the best swimming holes.
Check it out. Once you have a potential swimming spot, take a moment to look around you and see what’s happening. Notice which way and how fast the water is moving, and how fast. Check for rocks, fallen trees and other obstructions that might potentially trap a swimmer.
Make a plan. In a river, there is a basic rule: if you can’t swim upstream against the flow of water, you will not be able to get back to your entry point. You may also struggle to get out of the water at certain points because of fallen trees, steep banks or bridges. If you are doing a downstream river swim, you may want to consider throwing sticks in to see the speed of the river. Make sure you identify your exit point before you get in.
Know the depth. Don’t jump into any water source if you don’t know how deep the water is. You may hit a rock or a shallow depth and get injured. Also, beware of sudden changes in depth if you are not a strong swimmer.
Check the temperature. Swimming pools are kept at a comfortable temperature all year round, but bodies of water can be quite cold or change temperature throughout the summer. If you are planning to be swimming for longer periods of time in a colder lake or river, you may want to consider wearing a wet suit.
Watch the weather. You definitely don’t want to be in the water if there is a lightning storm on its way, but weather can also alter other water conditions. Wind can cause surface waves. Stormwater runoff can alter temperature and water clarity.
Be fit to swim. Know what your swimming level is and do not try to go beyond what you can safely do - even if others in your group are encouraging you to do so. Also, do not go swimming if you have been drinking alcohol.
Now that you have determined that this is a safe location to float for the day, here are some things to consider while you are swimming:
Don’t go alone. Let’s start with the obvious: never swim in open water by yourself. A fellow swimmer can be helpful, but also consider having someone in a kayak or walking the shore as you swim. If you run into problems, it can be just as helpful to have someone call for help as it is to have someone in the water with you.
Start slow. Open water can be unpredictable. Gain some experience in a new, open water setting with some easy, short swims in shallower water to get a feel for your new setting. Try to start your swims in a quiet place where you can swim parallel to the shore.
Don’t dive in. Even if you have been told that this spot is a local diving spot, don’t assume that it is safe. The water levels could be lower or a rainstorm could have shifted some rocks on the waterbed. Jumping and diving into open water can be very dangerous since you can hit your head on an underwater obstruction. Before you jump, get in and see how deep the water is. And remember that if you are jumping in from a higher place, you will go deeper than you have tested in the water.
Uck. Weeds. Weeds are a reality when you are swimming in deep water. If you see weeds while you are swimming, try to avoid them. If you do happen to get caught in weeds, don’t panic! Kicking and thrashing could get you wrapped up in the plant. To get yourself free, try to swim away with a slow doggy paddle until you are out of the danger zone.
Swimming in open water can be dangerous. If you are aware of and manage the risks, though, you will have many successful open water adventures.
And, if you would like to add in one more layer of safety, it would also be a great idea to have some first aid knowledge in your back pocket. You can take our First Aid Course to make sure you know what to do if an injury, emergency or accident occurs when you are out on your water adventures.