Thursday, July 29, 2010

Longshore rip currents: Dangerous and avoidable

While having breakfast on the shore of Lake Superior a week ago today, the FrugalFisherman took a call from his spouse informing us that the Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture, Rod Nilsestuen, had drowned near Marquette. She had worked with Rod in the office of former US Rep. Al Baldus back in Eau Claire in the mid 70's, and she and the FF had remained in touch over the years. I met Rod at the same time and even applied for an internship from him in the DC office of Congressman Baldus. Every publication from the farm journals to Business Week have been praising him as the man who revived Wisconsins dairy industry and could work well with both sides of the aisle toward the public good, a very rare and valued quality in these polarized times. The accounts said that Rod had been volunteering on a Habitat for Humanity project in Marquette and had gone for a swim after working. Witnesses say he was unable to swim back to a sandbar at the Picnic Rocks area near downtown Marquette. I know the area well. I was there the week before on my way to Grand Marais.

Picnic Rocks has been the scene of 12 drownings since the 60's. There is even a plaque at the beach with the names of the victims on it. The problem is that there is a tombolo or sand bar, that connects the shore to the rocks out in the lake. It can clearly be seen on the image above. When the wind blows from the north or east a strong current forms, almost like a rip current only running paralell to the shore instead of out into the lake. People either step off or swim off the narrow sand bar and then panic when they can't swim back to the shallow water against the current. The situation is described far better than I could in an article published by Sea Grant Michigan. It describes both the phenomena and how it can be dealt with. NOAA also has an excellent description and is where I heisted the Google map image above.

So how an we avoid another tragedy at a beautiful, inviting, yet dangerous spot? The lake after all, is indeed the boss and the conditions will not change. When I stopped at Picnic Rocks there was no parking within 3 blocks, it was sunny, Gitchee Gumee was flat, and people were having a wonderful time. Banning swimming there, as the National Park Service did in the Dalles of the St Croix River near Interstate park on the MN/WI border, is not the answer. Knowing how to deal with these rip currents would seem to be, but how do we educate people to the dangers? That sign with the 11 names on it certainly got my attention but, like many things, warnings aren't taken to heart until experienced personally and sometimes that's too late. About once every 4 years according to the history of the place.

I don't have an answer. Tell as many people as you can, write a letter to the editor, forward the two linked websites to folks that you know enjoy swimming in the lake, and try to educate. Rod Nilsestuen will be missed on many,many levels. If we all do our small part to make this little known fact about Lake Superior common knowledge, I would hope that a few lives might be saved along the way.

1 comment:

Ranger Bob said...

Thanks for this detailed analysis. I saw the news stories and needless to say was quite interested. Now I can picture the incident a lot more clearly.