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How to stay safe while swimming in rivers

After four drownings in seven days, New Hampshire officials are reminding residents and visitors of the importance of water safety.

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After four apparent or confirmed drownings in New Hampshire bodies of water over the past week, officials and river experts are urging caution to those who want to cool off in the state’s waterways while they remain swollen from heavy rains.

Here’s how you should prepare, and what you should know, before taking a dip at the tail end of summer.

Did the heavy rains make rivers more dangerous?

It’s been an especially rainy couple of months throughout New England, which has caused flooding and made the flow of local rivers more powerful, said Michele L. Tremblay, president of the New Hampshire Rivers Council.

“The kinds of rains that we’re having right now [are] bad because there’s a huge deluge that comes down,” Tremblay said in a phone interview. “That runs off impervious surfaces like roofs, parking lots, driveways and goes to the nearest storm drain that leads to a brook or a river.”


The runoff, she said, tends to create “a huge amount of water, very, very quickly.”

How should you prepare before jumping in?

Even if you’re a strong swimmer, it’s important to wear a life jacket when spending time in rivers, Tremblay said.

“If you get in trouble, at least you’ll be able to stay afloat and not get tired while you’re trying to swim,” she said.

Don’t get too comfortable about your river knowledge, either, she warned. Waterways are “really dynamic,” meaning a river that was relatively calm a short time ago could be extremely rough days or weeks later.

“Rivers are constantly changing,” Tremblay said. “It’s sometimes better to go to a nearby lake, or at least to stay in the shallow areas and wear a life jacket.”

How can you tell when water is too rough to swim?

It’s often difficult to tell that a river might have a dangerous current just by looking at it.

Tremblay said she looks at gauges published by the US Geological Survey, which offers stream monitors throughout New Hampshire. She also urged swimmers to be cautious.


“It just isn’t worth it to go to a river and dive right in or jump in from a rope swing” unless you’re fully confident, she said. Even then, you should be wearing a life jacket.

You should also be wary of rivers with trees down. Although healthy for the river system, they can cause swimmers to get pinned and ultimately drown.

If you have trouble in the water, what should you do?

The most important thing is to stay calm. People tend to panic and try to swim back the way they came, which is counterproductive and dangerous, according to Tremblay.

“Let the flow take you to the nearest shore,” she said. “Try to go on a diagonal and reach shore instead of going back the way you came.”

What should you do if you see someone struggling in the water?

If you see someone having trouble in the currents, call 911 immediately. Jumping in to try to rescue the person, though seemingly heroic, can put you both in danger.

“Shout to them and remind them to try to float downstream,” Tremblay said. “Look for someone already in a boat or canoe to help.”

Swimming in areas where there are plenty of people around is also a good idea, she said.

Elllie Wolfe can be reached at Follow her @elliew0lfe.