News

Lake Erie can be a killer, going from serene to sinister in a flash

By Debora Van Brenk, The London Free Press

Lake Erie can quickly turn from calm to treacherous. Eight people have drowned in the lake this summer in southwestern Ontario, including a Hamilton man who drowned while swimming off Long Point.  MONTE SONNENBERG/Simcoe Reformer

Lake Erie can quickly turn from calm to treacherous. Eight people have drowned in the lake this summer in southwestern Ontario, including a Hamilton man who drowned while swimming off Long Point. MONTE SONNENBERG/Simcoe Reformer

There are times Lake Erie shimmers like silk.

She lounges lazily, invites you for a visit, assures you she is merely an overgrown pond, a playground as benign as a sandbox.

But she is a moody one, this shallowest of the big lakes.

Even a small breeze can sweep her good nature away into a frenzy of whitecaps that crash and smash with a toddler's fury.

And as summer's heat gives way to an autumn forecast to be unseasonably warm, water safety experts say swimmers need to know this lake can morph quickly from tame to terrible.

The Great Lakes are always wilderness and "(not) a theme park, regulated to keep us safe," said Mark Mattson, head of Lake Ontario Waterkeepers. "They surprise us with their beauty but they're not controllable."

His group advocates for making the Great Lakes safer for swimming, drinking and fishing. It's also creator of SwimGuide, an app and online site that provides real-time summaries of water quality at thousands of beaches in North America and beyond.

Record numbers of hot days, combined with cleaner waters have enticed even more people to the family-friendly beaches of Southwestern Ontario.

They are a magnet, less than an hour's drive from home for most of us, with warm waters and beautiful sunsets an irresistible allure.

But it harbours the potential for tragedy, too.

Eight beach-goers have drowned in Southwestern Ontario this summer, double last year's toll.

Five of those people lost their lives while swimming in Lake Erie, a waterway that runs hundreds of kilometres along the region's southern edge.

We sometimes think what is so accessible, must also be safe.

Dave Sandford knows better.

The award-winning London photographer has been in and on the lake most of his life and, he said, it earns its name: "erige" is the Iroquoian word for cat -- changeable and unpredictable.

"You can see it at its calmest and then in a matter of minutes it changes," says Sandford. Or, he said, he will be shooting five-metre-high waves and within minutes or hours watch it settle to "almost mill-pond conditions."

Serene Erie is a source of inspiration for him but it's also his go-to place when he is looking for a body of water to "put on a show."

His photography of the power and beauty of Erie's waves made an international splash earlier this year, winning awards and accolades worldwide.

That's why Sandford, a proficient and confident swimmer, wears a life jacket and sometimes two. In really roiling waters, he enlists a spotter and a tether.

When he senses a riptide, where the current is carrying him down the lake, he just doesn't go in. Regardless of his own strengths, he says, "the lake is always more powerful.

"I'm confident in the water, I have to be confident in the water -- and at the same time you have to respect your limitations and know when to say no."

Forecasts are calling for a warmer-than-average September, following a hot August that has warmed beach water in some areas to 25 C or more.

Barbara Byers of the Lifesaving Society says peak swimming season may be almost over, but the need for caution isn't.

"The best thing you can do is swim in a lifeguard-supervised area." she said. Fewer than one per cent of drownings take place on supervised public beaches. But in many places the lifeguards are off the beaches as of this weekend.

That should be the nudge swimmers need to keep to shallower waters.

"Many people over-estimate their ability . . . or under-estimate the power of the water," Byers said.

Drowning deaths in Canada have been lower this year than last. But in Ontario, the tragic tally is much higher: 86 this year compared with 66 in 2015.

Thirty-one of them have been swimming-related deaths, on in pools but especially on beaches.

It's not completely surprising, given that record-high temperatures this year have drawn more people to more beaches.

Erie, because it is so shallow, is also prone to rip currents: noticeable by that tug that seems to pull our legs out from under us as the water backwashes from the shore.

"What people don't think about is how the water can change," Byers said. "Those lakes do change from year to year, from month to month, from week to week."

If it's tempting to venture into the big waves, to feel the push and pull of the current, that should be a signal it's time to don a life jacket, she said.

Rather than avoid the lakes, Mattson says, people should visit them more often, learn their temperament and understand their character.

Mattson says people who have an ongoing connection with the lakes might understand best that they're places where people can find great joy.

"The Great Lakes remind us of the beauty and the wildness of life."

Summer deaths in the region's waters:

July 14: William Johnston, just a few weeks short of his 19th birthday, went swimming in rough waters of Lake Erie at Port Stanley. He was a strong swimmer but succumbed to the waves and current. He was preparing to enter Fanshawe College in London the fall to study mechanical engineering.

July 21: A 76-year-old man snorkelling at Canatara Park beach in Sarnia is found floating face down and later died in hospital. He and two other men were snorkeling to a sunken shipwreck and, on the group's return to shore, the man was unresponsive. Attempts to revive him failed.

July 25: The body of Samsondeen Yusuf, 22, of Windsor, is found after he goes missing from a large boat on the St. Clair River.

Aug. 1: The body of Laura Del-Bel, 56, of Farmington Hills, Mich., is found after she disappeared while swimming near a boat on Lake Erie near Colchester Harbour in Essex County. She was a wife, and a mother of two daughters.

Aug. 11: Tracy Quinlan, 45, of Niagara goes under while swimming with a friend in Lake Erie, near Selkirk. She later dies in a Toronto hospital.

Aug. 13: The body of swimmer Hussein Da Silva, 19, of Hamilton is found in the water by passersby on Lake Erie's Long Point beach. He had been swimming with friends two hours before. Da Silva, who had immigrated with his mother to Canada from Uganda in 2012, was a talented high-school wrestler, soccer player and track athlete.

Aug. 18: Walter Sugden, 64, of Stratford, drowns in Lake Huron at Grand Bend. A father of three, Sugden was a carpenter and stagehand at Stratford Festival for more than 40 years.

Aug. 21: The body of missing swimmer Jared Grieb, 20, of Ohio, is found off Fish Point on Pelee Island in Lake Erie. The Kent State University student, an avid sports fan, had been swimming with three friends.

dvanbrenk@postmedia.com

Flip, float and follow:

If you find yourself too exhausted to make it back to shore, experts advise,

FLIP: flip on your back

FLOAT: Keep your head above water, calm yourself down and conserve energy

FOLLOW: Follow the safest course back to shore. Sometimes it will mean floating along with the current back to shore, sometimes it will mean swimming perpendicular (at a 90-degree angle) to a current to reach the shore. Don't fight against the current's pull.

Source: Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project/Lifesaving Society of Canada

Other tips:

-- Learn to swim

-- If you can't swim, wear a life jacket (Don't rely on rafts or float-boards because you may lose them in the water).

-- Swim on a beach with lifeguard support and obey the flags (red means no-go).

-- Never swim alone.

-- Don't swim in the dark.

-- Swim sober

-- Supervise children closely

(Source: Central Elgin Beach patrol)