The free loaner life jacket program run by Corvallis Parks & Recreation has a slogan: “Life looks good on you.”
Offered at Osborn Aquatic Center and near two popular Willamette River access points in Benton County, the rotating supply of 600 life jackets is the city’s latest effort to encourage safety in open water.
After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down water safety training and swimming lessons at Corvallis’ recreational pools, inexperienced swimmers flocked to the upper Willamette River, a summertime destination for kayaking, paddle boarding and boating. Inner tubing in particular has become so popular that new rental companies are popping up to meet demand.
But the open water, at times flowing as fast as 5 mph, can be dangerous. In Benton County, eight people have drowned in the river in the past 10 years, according to the sheriff’s office. None of them was wearing a life jacket.
In July 2020, the city launched the initiative that funds and stocks the free loaner vests in kiosks at Crystal Lake Sports Field and Michael’s Landing, a boat ramp north of the downtown waterfront park.
City officials hope that the program will save lives.
From May to October, the Benton County Sheriff’s Office patrols the Willamette River from Buena Vista to Harrisburg.
The patrolling deputies promote water safety by posting warning signs about any dangers along the river and clearing the water of obstructions or “strainers,” fallen trees or other debris that can create deadly traps of competing currents.
On a quiet summer morning near the Willamette boat ramp, two lone life jackets hung on the hooks of the once-full kiosk. The swiftly flowing river appeared deceptively calm.
A kayaker, donning a life jacket, whistle and helmet, practiced paddling against the current.
Lt. Toby Bottorff, who oversees the county’s marine patrol, commended the kayaker for having all the right safety gear, including a knife to cut through potential obstructions.
In these waters, even the best swimmers can drown if they’re not wearing a life jacket, Bottorff said.
“I think that the life jacket program … probably helped save lives,” Bottorff said. “I think (it’s) one of the best things that we’ve done.”
Because inner tubes are considered pool toys and not boating vessels, floaters are exempt from wearing a life jacket, Bottorff said. It’s also legal, and quite popular, to drink alcohol when floating on the river, he added. In two of the county’s eight fatal drownings, alcohol or drugs were contributing factors.
“When you add alcohol and inhibiting substances to your body, you’re going to start taking more risks,” Bottorff said.
Bottorff said he believes the marine patrol’s presence on the water has also influenced more people to wear life jackets.
At Osborn Aquatic Center, the pandemic disrupted programming, caused staffing shortages and limited pool capacity and hours. This summer, as more people opt for cooling off in the river instead of an enclosed pool, some parents are thankful for the option of loaner life jackets.
Although her family owns life jackets, Denise Demers, a Corvallis mother, said it’s convenient to have some to loan, just in case they forget to bring their own.
“You get that foggy mom brain, and then you think that the kids remembered their life jackets,” she said. “It’s just nice that they’re there.”
Life jackets can be expensive, ranging from $45 to $60, which can be a barrier for some people who can’t afford high-quality or well-fitting vests.
Particularly for children, poorly-fitting life jackets can come off when submerged in water. Also, in the event of a rescue, ill-fitting vests can make retrieval difficult.
“This program offers low-income families more access,” said Chelsea Chytka, an aquatics program coordinator for Corvallis Parks & Recreation. “Kids grow really fast … purchasing a life jacket of a different size the very next year can be difficult.”
Chytka restocks life vests twice a week, 20 to 30 at a time. They can be loaned from May to September.
Chytka hopes to expand the life jacket program in the future. With more grant funding, the city could install kiosks at the Avery Park Administrative Building, along Marys River, and near Willamette Park.
At Michael’s Landing, floaters drift by every few minutes, passing under a bridge and washing up along the shallow bank of rocks.
Packing up inner tubes into his car after floating the river with his two children, Keith Adkins, a researcher at Georgia Institute of Technology, said he’s seen too many people not wearing life jackets on the river.
“It’s just a lot of people are ignorant,” Adkins said, adding that he’s a fan of the city’s free loaner life jacket program because it can “keep people safe.”
“At least give ‘em the option, right?”
— Rachel Ehly, Forest Grove High School
— Gabriella Wong, Cleveland High School
This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration among The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program, go to oregonlive.com/hsji.