Vermonters relish warm summer days, and many eagerly head to local swimming holes to cool off. But some of those naturally beautiful spaces have also injured swimmers and even claimed lives.
First responders who’ve witnessed these tragedies say many could have been prevented if the public were better informed about the dangers.
Mark Klonicke and Adam Wood, both captains at the Richmond Volunteer Fire Department, identified heavy rains, high temperatures and aerated water as key factors in accidental drownings. Aerated water appears as frothy and white and makes it difficult or impossible for a person to float.
Knowledge of current weather patterns and river conditions can help first responders predict when these swimming holes are most dangerous. But that information hasn’t been effectively conveyed to swimmers, according to Klonicke and Wood.
The Bolton Potholes and the Huntington Gorge in Richmond are both popular Chittenden County swimming holes. The gorge is particularly notorious among locals for hazardous swimming conditions. According to the Vermont Department of Health, at least 16 people died there between 1985 and 2013.
In late May, a 21-year-old Burlington man died at the Bolton Potholes. According to the Vermont River Conservancy, this was the sixth known death at the Bolton swimming hole and the first since 2011. “All known drownings have been in the ‘Eagle’s Eye’ pool, where swift currents aerate the surface causing foamy, bubbly water and challenge even the strongest swimmers,” the conservation organization said in a press release issued after the latest death.
Klonicke has taken to monitoring the weather to inform his colleagues about hazardous conditions. “What I do is I send out an alert to all the first responders, going, ‘Hey, conditions are very ripe for a potential water rescue recovery incident this weekend,’” said Klonicke, who’s served in the fire department for 16 years.
He sent one such alert prior to the May drowning in Bolton.
“Twenty-four hours later, we were doing a rescue recovery,” Wood said.
The Bolton Potholes and the Huntington Gorge are public access sites owned by the Vermont River Conservancy and the Richmond Land Trust, respectively. Both locations have signs at all entry points warning swimmers about the dangers often found in the waters.
“It's a step in the right direction,” said Klonicke, referring to the signage. “But we need more.”
Klonicke and Wood, who have both been involved in multiple rescue efforts at these sites, are urging more education to boost public awareness of the dangers at the swimming holes.
The fire captains proposed sandwich boards, rather than fixed signs, as a more timely way to inform the public about daily swimming conditions, especially after heavy rains have elevated the danger.
“When you see a sandwich board out, it's like, ‘Oh, someone put that out. It’s not permanent.’ I think that clicks a little bit on some subliminal level,” said Wood, who’s served in the department for six years. “Like, ‘Hey, today someone came in and was like, this isn’t safe.’”
Klonicke and Wood said such efforts should involve both the landowners and entire communities.
“It's a community responsibility. I mean, Vermont is such a small community. We need to be all coming together to find the best solutions and working together to implement them,” said Klonicke. “The goal is to help keep people from dying.”
The Bolton town government has worked with the Vermont River Conservancy since it purchased the potholes property in 2018. The conservancy has installed warning signs and educational maps showing where dangerous conditions are most prevalent.
But Bolton officials aren’t fully satisfied with how the conservancy has managed the property. Bolton Selectboard member Andrew Pond expressed frustrations with the organization’s promotion of the site.
“They’re bringing more people there who just don’t realize that jumping in the water in May is a whole lot different than August,” Pond said.
As for Klonicke and Wood’s ideas for increased public education, Pond said “the town of Bolton would absolutely support the Vermont River Conservancy in posting more information that raises awareness.”
Richmond officials also expressed support for increasing public awareness of the dangers.
“I think that would be a really good idea. If anything, it would kind of cut through the clutter, so to speak,” said Town Manager Josh Arneson, referring to more frequent updates on swimming conditions.
Steve Libby, executive director of the Vermont River Conservancy, said the organization is open to collaborating more closely with other landowners to spread the message to swimmers. With the help of other public access organizations, the conservancy hopes to educate people who use the state’s natural areas about how to stay safe, he said.
Libby said swimmers must also take personal responsibility. “We kind of expect there to be efforts by the users to inform themselves about the particular place they’re going and what kind of conditions they know to expect,” he said.
Libby said he is also open to the idea of connecting users with weather services to warn them of dangerous conditions. He expressed enthusiasm for educating swimmers through social media, as did Brad Elliott, vice chair of the Richmond Land Trust.
“I know we did it last year with a Facebook page and on the email newsletter we send around, and then Front Porch Forum as well,” Elliott said. He said the Richmond Land Trust would be interested in working on Klonicke and Wood’s idea to set up daily updates about swimming conditions, especially after heavy rains.
For accidents at the Bolton Potholes and Huntington Gorge, typically four local departments respond, along with state and local police, Colchester Technical Rescue and Stowe Mountain Rescue.
But teams often still lack the necessary person-power. “Even when everyone shows up, we’re understaffed,” Wood said.
These types of preventable incidents also pose threats for first responders themselves. “The water rescues here, they’re very technical and they’re very dangerous,” Klonicke said. “Emotionally, it kinda puts you through the wringer.”
Nevertheless, the first responders say they are hopeful for the future, particularly if efforts are intensified to educate the public.
“We’re not going to prevent all the deaths, but to at least try to educate people and give people the chance to make the right decision, I think we're trying to do that,” Wood said.
The Department of Health cautions swimmers and visitors at popular swimming holes this summer to never swim alone, observe their surroundings and always check water and weather conditions.
“To safely get out of all these places, you have to be lucky every single time,” Wood said. “To not get out, you have to be unlucky one single time.”