Be Water-Wise Near Alaska’s Rivers and Streams


Being water-wise means always wearing a PFD and counting on an adult to check it for a good, tight fit. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

If you’ve spent any time fishing or boating with your parents, it’s likely you’ve seen how fast and deep our Alaska rivers and streams can be. Grownups are always worried about kids going near the water, and with good reason, since water-related deaths in Alaska are more common than you might think. Being water-wise is not just your mom or dad’s job; it’s yours, too, and today’s Kids Corner has a few tips for making sure your next adventure is safe and fun.

But first, a few common questions: 

Why are our rivers so high in the summer? Alaska has a lot of mountain snow, which is a good thing, but our warming summer temperatures and some pretty heavy rainstorms are causing that snow to melt, and melt fast. This means the rivers are full to bursting (often known as “bank-full”) and even overflowing, sometimes with little warning.

What makes rivers and streams dangerous? The additional flow of water means unique currents are created as the stream or river goes around or over obstacles in its path. Have you been to the Kenai River? Notice that currents swirl around and around, and over rocks, trees, and create waves like you’d find on an ocean. These currents make it hard to swim if you end up in the water.

When water floods, or simply runs high, lots of things get caught in the rush; tree branches, rocks, and even other boats (oops). These things may not show above the surface, or if they do, often fool us because they look harmless. A kid or adult who is carried along by fast water can get caught in this debris, sometimes known as a “sweeper” depending upon its location.

Alaska rivers and streams are also C.O.L.D. It makes sense, doesn’t it, with all that melting snow and ice from glaciers? A swimmer or boater who ends up caught in water colder than 50F will get hypothermia, fast, and needs medical attention. Cold water is so dangerous, in fact, that someone could die in minutes.

Our furry friends also should have PFDs. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Our furry friends also should have PFDs. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Staying Water-Wise in Alaska: 

Whether you are visiting Alaska, or live here all the time, here are tips from the Alaska Office of Boating Safety – Kids Don’t Float program. I trust these folks, and you should, too.

  • Talk about the buddy system anytime you are near an Alaska river or stream, and then, do it. NEVER go near the water alone. Ever. Take an adult with you and keep that person within reach. Adults, no matter what your kids say, they can’t go near a rushing river or stream without you. Even the big kids.
  • Wear a PFD (Personal Floation Device). Thanks to the Kids Don’t Float program, even if you don’t own one, one should be available at any boat launch, lake, river, or stream if there’s access by the public. Wear it.
  • Wear shoes. Sharp rocks, sticks, and other stuff in the water can hurt your feet, and make it even harder to rescue yourself if you fall in. Grab a pair of water shoes or even an old pair of sneakers. Parents, be aware that rubber boots can weigh a child down if he/she gets caught in the water, so be extra vigilant!
  • During high-water events (you can find out about warnings from the Alaska NOAA office), stay out of the water completely.
  • Always carry extra warm clothing, a cell phone, and first aid kit for emergencies.

Kids can take an active role in water safety:

  • Take a first aid and CPR class from the Alaska Chapter of the American Red Cross. Kids as young as 11 can take the class, or an instructor can come to your group/neighborhood/club.
  • Watch our for each other and make good decisions. Being water-wise means knowing the risks and telling your friends. Help keep an eye out on smaller children during camping trips or hikes. Tell an adult if someone is inching too close to the water.

Alaska is a great place to be during the summer, and when we all work together, a safe place, too.


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