Stay aware, safe while recreating at Lake Tahoe

Cheyanne Neuffer
People are reminded to practice recreation safety as summer approaches.
Provided / Upsplash

The weather is warming up and residents who have been cooped up will be flocking to any open beaches and trails.

Beaches, more trails and boat ramps are opening just in time for Memorial Day weekend, what is normally a massive gathering at Lake Tahoe, but should be tempered this year with a nonessential travel ban in effect and the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

But as has happened at Tahoe over the past couple of months, visitors are still coming to the lake, albeit in lesser numbers.

“We are encouraging people to not take unnecessary travel to recreational places,” said Deputy Greg Almos of El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office EMS Search and Rescue.

With a three-day weekend ahead and the beaches and trails likely getting more crowded, it’s important to know the risks associated with recreating at Tahoe.

“We expect beach and trail usage to increase as the weather warms up,” said Nevada State Parks Deputy Administrator Dale Conner. “People are anxious to get out of their homes, and many in this area consider Tahoe to be their ‘backyard’ for recreational use. As the weather warms up and visitation rises, there has historically been an associated increase in EMS incidents, however, we don’t anticipate any changes due to COVID-19.”

The recent snow storm aside, the Sierra snowpack has been melting which has led to swelled rivers and streams, with fast-flowing water. And that water is frigid.

At this time of year there are more cases of Cold Shock Response. With the sun hot on the skin, the lake looks mighty refreshing, but jumping into the chilly water unprepared could be fatal.

Fire Marshal of Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District Eric Guevin says people need to be aware.

“Cold water shock is a concern,” Guevin said. He added that they ask people to jump in feet first to get acclimated.

Cold Shock Response affects the heart, lungs and the ability to regulate breathing. It can cause lungs to be flooded with water in a matter of seconds while gasping for air. A person’s “fitness” doesn’t necessarily protect them either.

“People think they are fit and in shape but we’ve had a football player drown in Lake Tahoe and we’ve had a soccer player’s heart stop,” Guevin said.

He also spoke about a woman who lost her life last year while taking a selfie at Eagle Falls. The water swept her over the edge.

He said that if you fall in, keep your head above water and let your feet guide you.

“You can recover from a broken leg,” he said. “Go with the flow until you get to the side.”

Lisa Herron, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, said the increased snowmelt in streams and rivers make water activities dangerous.

“Increased temperatures means increased snowmelt in our streams, rivers and lakes,” Herron said.

“Snowmelt water is cold, swift and high and is not suitable for some water activities. Exposure to cold water, even for a few minutes can lead to cold water shock and hypothermia, which can be life threatening.”

Deputy Greg Almos of El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office EMS Search and Rescue said they initially had an increase in calls in the latter-part of March and late April.

“We saw back to back calls when this (COVID-19) initially kicked off,” he said.

Almos added that calls about people getting lost or suffering from injuries came from both locals and visitors.

Almos said weather is a contributing factor of river incidents, water is more inviting and as it gets warmer. Snowmelt causes rivers to become more turbulent and deep.

Almos said he recently saw tubers floating the Upper Truckee River near Sawmill Rd., and U.S. Highway 50 with no personal floatation devices, which is a no-no and risky.

With many boat ramps opening this week for Tahoe-only vessels, officials stress the importance of PFDs.

Guevin said having PFDs onboard and making sure it fits is great, but actually using it is even better.

Social distancing on the lake may also be a concern. There have been recent water rescues where people venture further away from shore, possibly trying to avoid others.

Almos stressed the importance for everyone to have an idea of what they would do if things go wrong.

“We stress the importance of having a plan,” Almos said. “The plan should include being prepared for survival and being self-sufficient.”

“Resources are spread thin right now and responses could be delayed,” Guevin said. “We are asking people to know their accurate and precise location. We have limited resources to respond to backcountry issues.”

Guevin recommended always letting someone know where you are going to be, make sure to watch the weather and know your environment.

But with all kinds of recreation, social distancing remains important due to the virus threat.

“We want to remind everybody that both Nevada and California still face significant threats from the spread of COVID-19 and as a result, important recreational restrictions remain in place,” said Nevada Office of Outdoor Recreation Administrator ​Colin Robertson. “Campgrounds in state parks and the national forest remain closed, and fire restrictions are in place in state parks and on lands managed by partners in the U.S. Forest Service.”

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