The Swimming Hole: Cool Fun or Cold Killer?
Teens call Susquehanna River locale both refreshing and dangerous.
A man and woman in their 50s sat picnicking in the shade along the Susquehanna River.
They’d heard about Michael Sawyer’s drowning—the 16-year-old who perished swimming in the waters just a stone’s throw from the couple’s picnic spot on private property.
“I used to swim here,” the man said, declining to give his name to Patch. “This undercurrent, I didn’t like swimming in it. But where are they supposed to swim?”
It’s called “the swimming hole” by Havre de Grace residents.
The area about 100 yards upriver from the Amtrak Bridge that casts shadows over the already-murky water. Visibility below the surface is minimal.
Some swimmers say there’s a car under the surface.
Others familiar with the area say the river is littered with abandoned vehicles from a time when the river froze solid enough for cars to cross from one side to the other without worry about tolls.
Capt. Bob Davis of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources police used to dive around the train bridges on the Susquehanna River for 15 years as a member of an underwater unit.
“I can tell you, its nasty,” he said. “There is a lot of debris in the water that you don’t see until you’re down there.”
Davis said swimmers should always be aware of the depths and conditions of the water where they are swimming. Often, people will forget the principals of safe swimming in the early summer after months since their last excursion, he said.
“If (someone) just want(s) to go in the water to get cool, put on a personal floatation device and just float,” Davis said. “Something to keep your head above water.”
In the Susquehanna River, all precautions should be taken.
“The Susquehanna River is a pretty strong river that comes from way up in New York,” Davis said. “It looks very placid on the surface, but there are currents. A lot of debris comes down the Susquehanna through the Conowingo [Dam]. I think it can be very hazardous.”
While the water depths where Sawyer drowned were estimated to be about nine feet, some locals who have been in the river said they remember teens swimming much further out than the 20 yards from shore where Sawyer reportedly began struggling.
“I think the real problem isn't actually the spot itself, although, the last time I was there, there was some sort of sunken car next to the pier, which seemed a little hazardous,” said Zack Tabor, 18, the valedictorian of Havre de Grace’s Class of 2010. “The problem is kids swimming out too far into the current.”
Natural Resources police have guidelines for swimmers to follow:
- When swimming outside guarded areas, obey all warning signs that alert swimmers to dangers and be aware of any surrounding signs or markers that indicate current water conditions.
- Never swim alone or while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
- Pay special attention to small children and use safety devices such as life jacket on children or other individuals who cannot swim.
- Carry a cell phone or have other ways of contacting emergency personnel in the event of an emergency.
- If an emergency occurs, immediately call 911 and remember to Reach, Throw, Row and Go.
Th four words mean:
REACH the person in trouble by extending a releasable item, such as a pole, line or rope to pull them to safety, but not by hand as the rescuer could quickly become another victim.
THROW an object that floats to the victim if they are unreachable. A life ring, personal flotation device and even coolers or plastic jugs are suitable floating objects that can keep a struggling swimmer afloat until rescues arrive.
ROW to the victim, using a canoe or any other safe watercraft. The rescuer must wear a life jacket. Once the victim is nearby, a rope or paddle should be extended and used to tow the victim to shore if possible.
GO to the victim by entering the water as a last resort and ONLY if properly trained. The rescuer should bring an object to keep the victim afloat and to prevent being pulled under.
Davis also said swimmers need to recognize their own strength.
Recent Havre de Grace graduate Grant McFarland has never been to “the swimming hole”, and believes a community pool would be a good idea.
However, he said the biggest issue is the ability of those who swim.
“I think less kids know how to swim than is often assumed,” McFarland said. “Even at 18, a lot of guys never learned how, which I find kind of surprising.”
Signs were not present at the location of Sawyer’s drowning, because the property where the teens entered the water is private. The property is adjacent to Jean S. Roberts Memorial Park. A sign was placed along the shore on the northern end of the small park in the days following Sawyer’s drowning.
Students erected a four-foot-tall cross a few feet from shore at “the swimming hole”.
“I think that’s better than any 'NO SWIMMING' sign,” Havre de Grace student Johnny Biondo, 16, said.
While “the swimming hole” has been a swimming spot for generations of swimmers, it only recently became a place to cool off for the group of Havre de Grace teens with whom Sawyer was swimming.
“We used to go fishing here. And more and more people would come," Biondo said.
"And then it eventually just became a spot to go swimming because teenagers really don’t have anything else to do in Havre de Grace.”
Finding things to do is a theme most teens face on a regular basis. Olivia Young, who just finished her freshman year, said she hopes the city does more to promote youth-targeted businesses.
“The city needs to build places for teens and kids to go to,” Young said. “We always have to rely on our parents to take us places. The malls, movies, and mini golf courses are too far away.”
Biondo and his friends think the return of the skate park, which used to sit on Todd Field, would be good for the youth of the community.
Many in the community supported the notion of a community pool after Sawyer’s drowning.
Commenters on Patch contended that money shouldn’t be an issue when it pertains to public safety.
But Havre de Grace public officials have told Patch a pool would cost roughly $1 million to construct—not including the annual upkeep costs. With a city budget of just over $13 million in fiscal year 2011 (the approximately $14 million fiscal year 2012 budget is expected to be passed tonight at the City Council meeting), adding such an expense is seen as impossible.
Many teens are expected to attend Monday’s City Council meeting to address public-access swimming options in the city.
Tabor says a community pool may not be the best fit for Havre de Grace teens—but swimming in the river isn’t the best option, either.
“Kids will always want something apart from the established facilities. Kids want to lay claim to the wilderness,” Tabor said. “Unfortunately, as we've seen [with Sawyer’s drowning], the wilderness has the potential to be suddenly and [surprisingly] dangerous.”