Buckle your life jackets: May is National Water Safety Month

Eau Claire community members stress the importance of wearing a life jacket when in or around water


© 2019 Kinsey Johnson

The Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers run through the city of Eau Claire.

It was a clear evening in April 2016 when 30-year-old Kyle Keith drowned after his friend’s fishing boat capsized at Dells Pond in Eau Claire.

“He followed the law, that is you have to have a life jacket with you in the boat,” Keith’s sister Kristan Motszko said. “He always followed that law. But having it in the boat isn’t enough when a gust of wind comes up.”

In recognition of National Water Safety Month this May, the Kyle Keith REEL Fishing Memorial held its second annual “Family Fun Event” on Saturday at Dunkin’ in Eau Claire to encourage awareness of water and boating safety. The nonprofit organization plans to carry on Keith’s love for fishing by partnering with the Eau Claire Water Safety Task Force to provide educational resources for individuals to safely enjoy fishing and other water activities.

Motszko said Keith is at the forefront of everything they do.

“It’s emotional, it’s hard, but at the same time Kyle would not want us to be stuck,” Motszko said. “We will never, ever move on from this, but we carry on. We do things we think he would like us to do and carry on his memory and his legacy. I hope sharing his story does good and is inspiring. If we can save even one life, one family from going through what we went through, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

According to the Eau Claire Fire and Rescue’s 2018 Annual Report, 12 water-related emergency incidents were reported last year. Eau Claire Fire Deputy Chief Al Bertrang has worked with the fire department for nearly 23 years and said lives are often lost in the spring as more people begin spending their time in or around the water.

“We always recommend that when it comes to the rivers or any type of a waterway that people pay particular attention to what the levels are,” Bertrang said. “If they’re high and they’re moving quickly, if the water is still cold like we see in the spring of the year, it is not safe for somebody to be in the water at that time.”

The Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers run through the city of Eau Claire. Popular spring and summer activities include fishing, cliff-jumping and tubing down the Chippewa River.

“We recommend that people only tube with other people,” Bertrang said. “We also recommend that they wear flotation devices like life jackets. One thing to pay attention to in rivers is what we call strainers, trees and logs and things like that, and to try to stay away from those because even under normal conditions, if a person that’s not a strong swimmer gets caught up in one of those strainers, it can be a potential for drowning or other type of injury.

Dave Whitehouse, chair of the Eau Claire Water Safety Task Force, emphasized the importance of wearing a life jacket when participating in these water activities.

“When we’re out on the water and we’re having fun and getting a tan, we have a tendency to want to, you know, not wear the life jacket because it may not look cool,” Whitehouse said. “But when you’ve got somebody that’s not a really great swimmer and then you combine current and the steep drop offs that can occur along the river, it has a tendency to catch you, and that’s where we have trouble.”

Whitehouse founded the Eau Claire Water Safety task force in 2012 after responding to a drowning incident as a rescue diver for the Eau Claire Fire Department.

“I’ve been a diver 28 years, and I’ve never recovered a drowned person that was wearing a life jacket,” Whitehouse said. “Not one.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional injury death in the United States. The CDC states that about 10 people die every day from unintentional drowning.

“Especially if you’re drinking, especially if it’s late at night and you can’t see along the shoreline, avoid getting too close to the water,” Whitehouse said. “One of the things about Eau Claire that makes it special is the rivers. They’re beautiful and fun in the summertime, but at the same time it has to be something that’s respected.”