Jumping into Lake Tahoe this weekend? Read this first | SierraSun.com

Jumping into Lake Tahoe this weekend? Read this first

No matter how hot the temperature gets outside, it may not be a good idea to jump right into the lake — at least without protection.

Whether you prefer to boat, swim, kayak or paddle, the Nevada Department of Wildlife and other officials are urging people exercise extra this year while enjoying Lake Tahoe because of the unusually cold water temperatures as the Sierra snowpack continues to melt.

"We've noticed a trend in accidents that involve cold water shock," said Nevada Department of Wildlife spokesman Edwin Lyngar, who is also a boating safety educator.

"There's been a lot of research over the years and we used to think people died of hypothermia, but now we know they don't," he said.

Cold water shock is caused by the sudden immersion. It can cause muscle spasms, hyperventilation, and a gasp reflex that can cause a person to swallow water and drown. It can cause even the strongest swimmers difficulty in keeping their heads above water.

"This year, the water is colder and the lake is fuller," Lyngar said. "It just seemed like it was going to be a bad year."

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The Sierra received record snowfall this past winter, which means that there's more ice-cold water flowing into places like Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River than in recent years.

Lyngar said that so far this year, the department has been lucky because there haven't been as many reports as expected. He said that people should still be careful, because a lake as big as Tahoe can take a very long time to warm up.

"Anytime the water is under 75 degrees there's a danger, but it isn't a matter of not jumping in the water, it's a matter of wearing a life jacket," he said. "People overestimate their swimming ability and the effect that the cold water is going to have on their muscles."

Lyngar and others urge people to wear life jackets near the water, even if they're strong swimmers, since a personal flotation device can prevent a person from drowning if cold water shock does occur.

"A life jacket is going to cover a multitude of mistakes … it's going to solve 90 percent of the things you face out there on the water," he said.

To help encourage the use of personal floatation devices, the Nevada Department of Wildlife has been installing life jacket loaner stations at places throughout the state, including Sand Harbor and Cave Rock with the help of the Coast Guard and state parks.

"We've known for many years that loaner life jacket stations make a huge difference," he said.

Lyngar added that there are about 15 life jacket loaner stations throughout the state, and more to come. They carry sizes for adults and children, and are offered free of charge.

"We put them at boat ramps most times, because that's where we think people need them, but we don't mind if people use them while swimming," he said.

In addition to wearing a life jacket while boating or even swimming, Lyngar said it's important for people to also use them while going stand-up paddle boarding.

"I think SUP (stand-up paddle boarding) can be very dangerous when people refuse to carry or wear a lifejacket," he said.

Lyngar said the number of reported SUP accidents was very high two years ago.

"SUP often keeps me up at night," he said. "I worry about that activity and the fact that people don't take it seriously."

SUP safety courses are available online through the American Canoe Association at americancanoe.org. The Nevada Department of Wildlife also has boating safety information on its website at ndow.org.

Amanda Rhoades is a news, environment and business reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at arhoades@sierrasun.com or 530-550-2653. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @akrhoades.

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