A rescue board is delivered to one of the lifeguard stands prior to the start of their shift at the Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesterton Wednesday July 1, 2020. Nice weather and calm waters of Lake Michigan resulted in large crowds at the beach. (Andy Lavalley / Post-Tribune)
A rescue board is delivered to one of the lifeguard stands prior to the start of their shift at the Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesterton Wednesday July 1, 2020. Nice weather and calm waters of Lake Michigan resulted in large crowds at the beach. (Andy Lavalley / Post-Tribune)
Tim Leisten’s stepdaughter, Brooklyn, stuck close by him as the two played in shallow, chilly water at Indiana Dunes State Park late on a recent morning.

Brooklyn, 5, wore a bright pink life jacket and Leisten, of Naperville, Illinois, kept the girl within close reach.

He typically checks forecasts for beach warnings about hazardous waves and said he always swims at beaches with lifeguards, “just in case something happens to the kids.”

Also a must for any beach excursion is a life jacket for Brooklyn.

“I can’t swim,” she chimed in before Leisten added, “We’ll teach you how to swim.”

A little over a week after Dominic Snovicky, 18, of Plainfield, Illinois, drowned off the same beach in what the Indiana Department of Natural Resources has described as dangerous conditions under a beach hazard warning because of high waves and strong rip currents, beachgoers and conservation officers alike agreed about the importance of safety measures such as checking water conditions, swimming only at beaches with lifeguards and wearing life jackets.

Snovicky has been the only drowning so far this year at the state park, said Terri Millefoglie, a conservation officer for the DNR. Lake Michigan’s shoreline has seen 10 drownings, including the one here, this year, according to statistics compiled by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

Indiana Dunes National Park has not seen any drownings this year or last, according to Bruce Rowe, supervisory park ranger and public information officer there.

Last year saw 48 drownings in Lake Michigan, including seven along Indiana’s shoreline, according to the rescue project, which tracks drownings in the Great Lakes and advocates for swimming and water safety.

Lake Michigan is the only body of water in the state that has rip currents, Millefoglie said, making it unique among the other bodies of water in Indiana.

The lifeguards at the state park are trained to watch for rip currents and shut down swimming if they spot them, she added.

“Other beaches don’t have that,” she said, adding when unsafe conditions shut down swimming, swimmers sometimes go to an unguarded beach. “That’s one of our biggest worries. That’s why they shut the beach down. Rip currents are very serious and can pull you away from the beach.”
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For safety’s sake, Millefoglie recommends staying out of the water when conditions aren’t safe and wearing a life jacket.

Sandbars, another unique feature of Lake Michigan compared to the state’s inland lakes, may provide a false sense of security since the drop-off could be over a swimmer’s head and sandbars can shift with the waves, “so they’re not predictable,” she said.

Life jackets, she added, should be the appropriate size for the people wearing them.

“Lakes and rivers and particularly Lake Michigan, your footing can be unpredictable sometimes, and it’s OK to wear a life jacket,” Millefoglie said. “The majority of our drownings could be prevented, and that’s sad.”

She also suggested swimmers provide a “float plan,” similar to what’s recommended for boaters, so someone knows where a swimmer is going and when they’ll be back.

“That’s just something, from a rescuer’s standpoint, when we get that call in the middle of the night,” she said. “It gives us somewhere to begin.”

Within the boundaries of the national park, the only beach with lifeguards is West Beach, Rowe said in an email. It’s guarded from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Six guards are working the park this summer.

“Most of our beaches are unguarded and we urge the public to learn about the dangers of Lake Michigan before swimming or letting their children enter it,” he said. “Even on calm days, the lake can be dangerous. The bottom is uneven with holes and deep drop-offs especially near sandbars. These inshore holes are very dangerous to small children and non-swimmers.”

Even good swimmers should stay out of the water when there are large, breaking waves because of the danger of rip currents, he added, which are caused by a sudden break in an offshore sandbar that releases water rapidly back into the lake.

Back at the state park, lifeguards and park staff righted a couple of lifeguard stands knocked over by mischievous beachgoers the previous day. A sign on each stand noted swimming hours were from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., told swimmers to stay only in chest-deep water and offered warnings about the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, inflatable objects, boats and rafts.

The Gamino family of Oak Forest, Illinois, parked themselves at the water’s edge not far from one of the lifeguard stands. Amanda and Nick Gamino watched over their kids, Skylar, 5, and Brody, 2, play in the sand and dip their toes in the water.

“With our kids being younger, yeah, we always keep an eye on them and make sure they’re safe,” Nick Gamino said.

Sometimes the family checks for beach hazard statements about rip currents and high waves, Amanda Gamino said, but didn’t the other day because the beach trip, about 45 minutes from their home, was an impromptu decision since they hadn’t been to the beach yet this year.

“They can’t go in the water without us,” she said.
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