Some traditions die hard, even when they’re dangerous.
That’s the case with the old-fashioned swimming holes that dot the Columbus area. They remain a popular — and cheap — way to beat the heat, despite risks associated with fast-moving currents, underwater obstacles and uneven depths.
Scattered along stretches of the East Fork White and Flat Rock rivers, Bartholomew County swimming holes like Anderson Falls, Owens Bend Park, Heflen Park, Lowell Fishing Site and the spot in the shadow of the Third Street Bridge see steady traffic in the spring and summer as the mercury rises.
Mike Ferree, a member of the Bartholomew County Parks and Recreation Board, said that although swimming typically isn’t prohibited at parks like Anderson Falls, the county does not endorse the practice because of the inherent risks associated with swimming in a non-controlled environment without a lifeguard.
In the early 1900s, local youths flocked to a spot in the Flat Rock River on the northwest edge of what is now Noblitt Park. That place did have a lifeguard, a man known as “Jack the Bum” or “Uncle Jack,” said Nancy Hoeltke, also a member of the county park board.
A trustworthy drifter whose real name was Jack Miller, he is memorialized in a painting displayed at Columbus City Hall.
Jack spent much of his time in town keeping an eye on youngsters splashing around in the popular swimming hole and even gave swimming lessons.
That’s not the case today, and authorities urge swimmers to be cautious in natural bodies of water.
Sheriff’s Department Maj. Gary Myers, a member of the Bartholomew County Water Rescue and Recovery Team, said swimming in creeks, streams and rivers should not be done casually, especially by younger children and inexperienced or weak swimmers.
Currents can carry swimmers downstream and sap their strength as they struggle to get ashore.
Creeks, rivers and streams also can change depth rapidly, Myers said, and swimmers can find themselves in over their heads before they realize they’re in trouble.
“It goes from several feet deep to just a few inches ... in just a matter of a few steps,” he said of the East Fork White River near the Third Street Bridge, where the rescue team trained recently.
Murky waters can mask a water’s depth and hide dangers like logs and other debris that can injure or ensnare swimmers.
Myers said swimmers always should enter the water feet first and avoid diving except in areas clearly labeled safe to do so.
Children and inexperienced swimmers should take the extra precaution of wearing a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal floatation device, Myers said.
He also recommended that weak swimmers stick to water that is less than chest deep.
Alcohol contributes to the danger, because it can impair judgment, balance, coordination, and swimming and diving ability. Alcohol also makes it more difficult for the body to regulate its temperature, which can lead to problems in cold water.
Angela Goldman, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, said swimming in public waters is perfectly legal, but agreed that caution should be used.
Swimming on private property without permission, even when it’s not clear who owns the property, can put you on the wrong side of the law. Trespassing is a misdemeanor punishable by jail time, Goldman said.
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