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Emily Welker, Published July 27 2013

Red River swimming can be safe - in the right spots

FARGO – Despite a run of recent police calls involving people in the Red River, the winding waters can be safe for swimming.

But like driving on Interstate 29, taking a plunge in the Red can be dangerous without experience, practice and adherence to proper safety procedures.

“Most of the problems we see are people who think they know what they’re doing and don’t,” said Bob Backman, executive director of River Keepers, a nonprofit advocacy group for the Red River.

“Or (they) are drunk,” he added.

It wasn’t clear yet Friday what happened with a river call that drew local firefighters to the Red’s banks after a Fargo Country Club employee saw a bike near the river at 5:45 a.m. and several hours later heard someone calling for help.

The search was called off at about noon when officials began to doubt someone was actually in the river, Assistant Fargo Fire Chief Gary Lorenz said.

Calls about average

It was the second river search in a week called off after a call for service turned out to be a false alarm. On Tuesday, rescue crews spent a little under an hour searching the Red after a woman called 911 to report her friend had tried to swim across and disappeared near Fourth Avenue South and Second Street.

Within city limits, Moorhead fire officials said they’ve responded to six river rescue runs so far in 2013, which is about average for their department.

The Fargo Fire Department has responded to nine calls on the Red River – a slight increase that Lorenz attributes to a growing population.

On Tuesday, the woman was found safe on the river’s bank – after she swam across, went home, changed clothes and came back downtown, according to Backman.

“Neither was sober,” he said of the swimmer and the friend who called 911.

Hazards

Sobriety is essential for swimming in the Red River, Backman said.

Also, the Red is not a good spot to learn. River swimmers should know how to swim, Backman said.

“In the 1920s, several children drowned in the Red because none of them could swim,” he said.

In the 1920s, the Red was commonly used as a recreational center for boating and canoeing. At the time, an even bigger safety issue was untreated sewage in the Red, which made some swimmers ill. Since then, water treatment has helped improve the water quality in the Red.

But the river is still muddied by clay silt, which makes it difficult to see debris, depth and obstacles – a potential hazard for swimmers who could get caught on underwater trees in midstream or misjudge the depth of murky water.

For those reasons, Backland recommends swimmers stick to reaches of the Red with which they are familiar and avoid the river altogether in city limits.

Safe spots

Swimming in the river in Fargo-Moorhead is legal, though it’s banned in at least some communities, such as Grand Forks.

Jay Leitch also suggests staying out of the river in town. He lives along the Red just north of Moorhead, and his family has swum there for the past 15 years.

“If you’re wearing tennis shoes, it isn’t too bad,” he said.

In the downtown area, the river has quite a bit of broken glass left over from the series of bars that once lined its bank, Leitch said.

But north of town, his children swim regularly, particularly when a summer flood brings warmer water right into their yard.

“You probably wouldn’t want to go in by yourself, but as long as you know what you’re doing, you’ll be OK,” Leitch said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541