Unfamiliar Waters

River 1 by Jessika Weaber

Swimming in Foreign Waters

When is it safe? How is swimming different when you’re camping? Living in a tent? Hiking from site to site? Why would we care about that?!?

It matters, because the supplies you have with you may be different, and you are less able to get immediate medical attention. And, as I finish this, it has become a list of ways to remember water safety and camping safety in general.

Not to mention: if you’re doing all this alone, swimming overall is not the greatest idea. Wading is good, especially in water shoes and in areas you are very familiar with and comfortable. Sandy bottom, few rocks, low currents (no predators). If you’re alone, stick with those (and have a waterproof radio to call for help).


What to Look Out for

  • leeches
  • snakes
  • gators
  • sudden drop offs or ledges
  • slippery rocks
  • rabid anything
  • sharp stones
  • swirling eddies
  • suspiciously calm yet fast moving water


Some of these you’ll be able to see from out of the water. If you’re in an area where there might be alligators, or other large predators, keep a weather eye out and always pay attention. If you’re with kids, don’t go anywhere near the water or tall grass.

Leeches you may not see until they’re already on you. Once that happens, use salt (or vinegar) and tweezers and they should come off without too much tugging, just a light pull (just keep adding the salt or vinegar). Douse the spots in your disinfectant/cleaning solution, and make sure any open skin is cleaned thoroughly, let it breathe before you cover it. If that section of your body starts tingling and doesn’t stop a few minutes after you get the leech off, get to a hospital. They’re finding new allergies everyday, and some creatures carry some funky diseases.

Look at the water itself, not just in an attempt to see how deep it is. Are the sides moving quickly while the middle seems slow? That means that the middle section of water is actually moving very fast, just not on the surface. Underwater currents can be like a tornado – they move quickly and toss you around like tissue paper. Be careful. One way to test, if you’re not sure, is to get a stick of at least 8 feet and stick it lightly into the water as far out as you can safely extend without getting in the water at all. Have a light grip on the stick and hold it so it can be ripped out of your hand, just in case. You can get a sense of the danger from the tugging on the stick. However, just because there’s no resistance when you try it, doesn’t mean that other sections (or further in the middle) are safe. It just means there’s no pull in that particular spot.

Even the sides of rivers and lakes can pose a danger. Swirling eddies can be stronger than young or elderly humans can fight against. Much like the middle of streams moving faster, an “edge” or curve can create sections where the water is more turbulent. Dangers come from not only the speed of the water; but also the things that get carried with it. Light, sharp stones or pointy tree branches can be on or under the water, and if they make contact with your person, will cause a lot of pain and damage. Use your eyes, do the stick test, and make sure your brain is turned on the entire time. Safety First!!

Sudden drop-offs and hidden ledges cause death and mayhem every year. A drop-off can be sudden and hidden for many reasons: unclear water, sun glint, deceptive depth, sinkholes, growing flora, etc. Hidden ledges are terrifying for those who’ve encountered them before. Even if you swim well and think you know where you are, the distorted light and shadows work against you causing confusion and further panic. If you get caught underneath one, swim down just a little and towards faster moving water. The faster water is (almost) always the middle of the river, move up as you travel, using your hands to check for the surface. Caveat: if you’re swimming near a waterfall, all bets are off. You want to swim away from where the water is moving down, and follow the current out into the larger pool. Once you get moving along, get to the surface fast: you don’t want to hit any rocks or tree limbs, and you want to make sure you’re not pushed into a cave or under another ledge. Water is stronger than we are. The more there is and the faster it’s moving, the less chance we have of conquering it alone.

If you’re with kids, train them to not try to save each other. This sounds cruel; however: a child, even a teenager, is less likely to have the body mass and wherewithal to successfully save the person they’re after, and is more likely to cause them both to drown. I’m not saying this to be insensitive, I’m saying it because a man I love dearly had to go out again last year and show the Rangers where to find 5 bodies. 3 kids trying to save each other, and 2 adults who also didn’t win against nature. Please don’t be the reason my friend cries at night.



Seaweed and weeds also inflict their own issues.

I grew up near a lake, quite long for a lake but nothing like the Great Lakes or Lake Geneva. I spent my young childhood towards the north end of the lake, and my teenage years towards the south. It was a culture shock (to little old rural me) to learn that the southern half of the lake never had swimmers. There were boats, and a rowing crew from the local college; but no swimming was permitted around the entire southern tip, and that trend held as a mindset for that half of the entire lake. Turns out the weeds at that end of the lake were so bad it would have cost the local towns a few million dollars to clear them out – every year. Needless to say, this didn’t happen. People swam in public pools or not at all. There used to be swimming. Then locals started caring that half a dozen swimmers died every summer, and the officials began to request no swimming areas that grew to encompass what parks the area had. Now, where my notions of “safety” and “common sense” came from were based on places where people would dive sight unseen into the gross water collection pools of rock pits, so yeah, it was weird to learn that an entire county of people followed the decree of “No Swimming” and didn’t try to wiggle around it.

Basically that was a very long story, with little connective point. However, every body of water can grow something. Could be good, could be bad. Could be flora, could be sporangium. How it connects: much like George Carlin talking about swimming in the East River and their immune systems being rock solid, that was the community of my formative years. Not a lot of deep thinking, but tons of learning by experience.

When a plant wraps itself around you, it shortens the plant stalk. Like wrapping a thread around your finger and pulling, your own weight works against you. It’s the Finger Trap issue, to the billionth degree.


If you get caught by a plant:

  1. call out for help – hopefully you have someone around, or even a stranger who can see where you are and that you’re in trouble
  2. stop struggling – think of quicksand and wriggle yourself higher if you can, but don’t kick! That will just further tangle your legs
  3. tell whoever is nearby what’s going on – warn them that you’re caught in the weeds. There’s no point in endangering your rescue team. They may even have a boat nearby they can pull you into (and possibly even a machete for getting you loose quick).
  4. if you see a clear area nearby, try to climb up higher in the water and move yourself to it. Again, kicking will probably not be possible.
  5. No Matter What You Do: Do Not Put Your Head Under Water!! You can’t swim out below it. The plants are growing from the bottom, and only get thicker further down.

Be smart about your surroundings, and your activities out in the wild. Nature wins, even as we conquer it.


For my own mental health, I need to end this post here. I may continue it at a later time, however right now it’s bringing up a lot of lost friends and their dumb (and stupidly fatal) mistakes.

Does anyone have any of those happy-but-moronic memories to share? Could certainly use the pickmeup!


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I'm (now) an Affiliate, who blogs about the materials, gear and supplies needed for living in a tent and long term camping: http://longtermcamping.siterubix.com I also enjoy reading and sci-fi in all its many forms.

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