Roanoke Valley experts share water safety tips as more people head outdoors for the summer months

Roanoke Valley News

ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — With the official start of summer taking place this weekend, more people are choosing to head out onto the water. The activity can be great fun for friends and family, but it does have risks.

As of Friday, June 18, three people died after a group on tubes went over the Duke Energy Dam in Eden, N.C. Four people were rescued and two people are still missing.

Roanoke Fire-EMS officials say while the Roanoke River may look calm and steady most days, that’s not always the case.

“It’s when the water’s up and it’s dangerous conditions,” said Capt. Jeff Peay, Swift Water Rescue Team lead at the fire department.

While he says tubing rescues are rare in the Roanoke Valley, incidents involving swimming and kayaking do happen from time to time.

“We try and get there as fast as we can, and then search and find a witness so we can go and find a rescue,” said Peay. “It takes us a while to get out the door, and often times the river is not next door. It’s going to be a long time before we can get there, so taking care of yourself is very important.”

However, it is a different scenario in Eagle Rock.

Rob England, owner and lead fishing guide for Appalachian Bronzeback Adventures, says he’s performed several rescues of his own over the past 13 years. His company often fishes along the James, Jackson, and Maury Rivers.

“There was a man and a woman that were in a canoe. I feel pretty confident that there was alcohol involved. They had flipped over their kayak,” said England. “It was very fast water through there. They didn’t have any life jackets. They lost their paddles, and we had to rescue both of them.”

England says safety is top priority for him and his clients. He requires CO2-powered life vest for every passenger aboard his boat.

“I won’t even let them in the boat unless they have that on, and I wear it myself,” said England.

He also tracks all three river’s water gauges using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) application on his phone. The system provides hourly updates at certain intervals along nearby rivers. The app will also show current and projected river levels over a certain time span.

“If it looks like there’s going to be unsafe conditions due to rain or upstream,” said England. “We won’t go out.”

While he hopes more people come outside to enjoy the beauty of the water, England also hopes they take a page from his own book, and prepare for the unexpected.

“You just never know when you’re out on the water, the things that can happen especially being out on a river,” said England.

Knowledge is key when it comes to water safety. Further safety tips include:

  • Have a plan for your trip. Know where your start and endpoints will be along the river.
  • Let someone know about your outing. Inform them where you’re going and what time you should be back.
  • Be aware of swift-moving water. Don’t take a tube or boat near a waterfall or fast rapids.
  • Always wear a life jacket.
  • Bring a whistle. If you’re in danger, using the tool could be easier to alert someone nearby instead of yelling.
  • Be mindful of dams.
  • Do not be impaired by alcohol. You must stay alert at all times.
  • Have a phone with you. While most rivers do not have cell service, some may, which can make it easier to call emergency services in the likelihood of an event.
  • Pay attention to river markers. This will help you indicate how far the river actually stretches, and maybe when to stop.
  • Practice falling out of a tube or boat. This will prepare you for any situation.
  • Be aware of the water’s temperature. You may be at risk for hypothermia if the temperature is below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

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