By Dari Kotzker
Searchers in Frenchtown recovered the body of Gary West Jr., days after the 38-year-old Summit resident drowned in the Delaware River. Police say West’s inner tube had overturned, dumping him into the turbulent water. Alarmed at the dangerous river conditions, local police officers stepped in to block people from tubing on the Delaware for several days. While hundreds of people usually participate in water activities here, last week it was empty because the rain swollen river crested at more than eight feet. The Frenchtown Police Department reported more water rescues in the past few weeks than during an entire summer season.
“Our rescues are coming on board right now because of the flooding of the Delaware River and the razing of the river and the debris that’s in the river and people not using due caution and common sense by looking at it and saying, ‘Maybe we should not go in the river,’” said Frenchtown Police Chief Allan Kurylka. “Unfortunately the other day we pulled out a deceased body that was in the river for two days.”
Commercial river tour and rental companies, along with local police departments, say one of the main dangers is that the river can be deceiving, especially for tourists.
“If you look at the river right now, it appears to be very calm. Where you think it might be shallow, could be five feet of water,” Kurylka said.
Many of the companies close down when the river is above eight feet, so they have been hit hard from the unsafe river conditions.
“We’re open year round, but this is when we make the money,” said Paddle Creek owner Chuck Arkell. “We were washed out Memorial Day, now Fourth of July, so it’s really hurting our business. About 70 percent of my trips have been canceled because of high water.”
The National Park Service has safety signs at each access point and uses social media to alert visitors when the river is too high for water activities. Some Hunterdon County towns along the Delaware are trying to create their own warning system.
“There should be some kind of a system that we as a community agree on, to warn people that are from out of town,” Arkell said. “Say a simple three flag system that would be green is the river is three to five feet high, recommended, five to eight, recommended, over eight not recommended.”
“There needs to be something to put in place. I feel that it’s gonna be educational and an awareness,” Kurylka said.
The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area enacts a mandatory safety vest wear when the river is eight feet and they close off access points if it’s above 15 feet. Over the past 50 years, they have had 90 deaths on the river, many caused by not wearing life vests.
“A lot of times people have them with them in the boat, which is what the law allows for, but if you’re not wearing it, you’re not going to be able to get it on fast enough if you should suddenly capsize and it won’t be there for you when you absolutely need it,” said Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area Park Ranger Kathleen Sandt.
Other safety tips include studying your route before going out on the water and letting people know when and where you will be.