Note: River conditions have been deadly this year. Three people have drowned in the South Yuba River this summer season: on May 27 at the Highway 49 Bridge, on June 16 at Rice’s Crossing and on June 18 near Donner Summit. Already 17 people have drowned in rivers across the state. SYRCL’s River Ambassadors are seeing first hand how unprepared visitors are for a dangerous river season. Help us get the word out: Safety First. Stay Out.
By Whitney Logue, SYRCL Stewardship Coordinator
Each weekend morning, Memorial Day through Labor Day, the River Ambassador shift officially begins when we introduce ourselves, “River Ambassadors checking in,” over our State Parks radio. Throughout my shift, I feel the heavy radio on my hip, and hear the clicks, chatter, and static in the background. Seeing the carefree faces of our river visitors, locals and non-locals alike, I am continually reminded of the potential danger any of them could face as they venture down the path to the water.
Our partnership with California State Parks ensures, should there be an emergency, we have a way to communicate with the Park’s staff. I am grateful for the radio, for the opportunity it gives us to call for assistance should we need it in areas that do not have cell service. I also live in fear of the call I never want to make: someone has drowned at the river.
Last Sunday, as wave after wave of river visitors arrived in search of relief from the heat, I welcomed them to the river… I also had to urge them to stay out of the water. Throughout the shift, I saw groups of friends and families arriving at the river with wide smiles against the sun, toting pool floaties, pop-up tents and ice chests. Many of them had driven hours to come to the river, rising early to spend the day enjoying the relief of the river as they have every year. We welcomed them to the river, educated them about responsible river recreation like packing out what they pack in and not having fires at the river. Then, we’d ask them to stay out of the water. Responses ranged from surprise to indignation: “It’s normally safe this time of year”, “Someone drowned here on Friday?” “I know what I’m doing, I’ve been coming here for years.” Many of the visitors hadn’t heard of the recent deaths, but had seen images of the beauty of the swimming holes. They never thought that the river they know could suddenly become something quite different.
I was on shift recently, when I heard “river rescue” over the radio. As I listened for more information, I felt ashamed at my relief when I learned it wasn’t at our location, and grief for the tragedy that had occurred.
Someone lost their life. They might’ve expected a river much like the one they’d become familiar with during the drought: calm, safe, welcoming. But the Yuba is no longer the river we’ve known, it belongs to itself. It is wild, cold, and swift. Snowmelt roils at each of the river crossings, hiding boulders, downed trees, and even faster currents. The Yuba is renewed, and powerful. We should be humbled by its force, and we should be mindful of the impact these preventable losses of life have on our community, on the first responders, and on the families of those who have already felt this kind of loss.
The most important thing we can do is to raise awareness about the extreme danger that exists in this rare high-water year. As new visitors prepare to enjoy their day, our goal as River Ambassadors is to educate people about the real dangers that exist. It is a victory when we see visitors pack their boogie boards and floaties back into the car. We aim to help save lives on the river and spread the message to: stay out, and stay safe. For now, we advise folks to swim safely at a creek or a lake instead.
As I prepare for another weekend, I see the open volunteer spots we need to fill. I see the red text on my computer screen as a lost opportunity to keep people safe, to keep our community from experiencing more tragedy. We have close to 50 volunteers with the River Ambassador program, and for all the incredible work they do, we still need more help. We need you. We need more volunteers to help us keep the Yuba clean, safe, and healthy. Please, join us as a River Ambassador by attending our training Tuesday, July 18th at 5:30 pm. The river needs you to keep the community safe, and out of the water.