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Many try, few succeed in foolish attempts to swim river

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A 22-year-old man tried to swim across the main channel of the Mississippi River on Friday but was picked up about 100 yards out by recreational boaters, La Crosse police said.

It’s just the latest attempt at what rescue officials say is a foolish and dangerous endeavor.

“It’s a big concern,” said Jeff Murphy, division chief for the La Crosse Fire Department. “It seems like we’re dealing with it more than we have in the past.”

A handful of people try to swim across the river every year. Many wind up in a rescue boat.

In September, police cited with disorderly conduct eight people who made an attempt. All but two had to be rescued.

“If you’re not Michael Phelps, you’re not going to get across that river safely,” said Mike Welvaert, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service.

The river is lower than normal because of the summer weather, but swimmers are always susceptible to currents if they leave restricted areas, he said.

The man who tried to swim across Friday started to flag mid-trip, stopping for longer breaks between strokes and drifting farther south with the current, witness Becky Lubinsky said.

Lubinsky was sitting on a bench north of the Cass Street Bridge when she noticed a figure across the river, swimming away from the beach.

“We watched him for a little while,” Lubinsky said, “until he started to stop.”

Worrying for his safety, she called 911.

Meanwhile, somebody from a nearby restaurant ran to the riverfront to alert passing boaters of the swimmer, witnesses said. The man was more than halfway across the channel when he was picked up by boaters and delivered to authorities.

He was not cited by police, who said his friends paid him $200 to try to cross.

Swimmers often underestimate the river’s midstream current.

“Strong swimmers, when they get about half way across, find out they’re not strong enough,” Murphy said. “That’s where they end up getting pulled out.”

Because the chances of crossing are so slim, responders have to react to every call. That takes time and resources away from the fire department’s other duties, Murphy said.

The Mississippi’s flow near La Crosse was 14,300 cubic feet per second at noon Friday, a measure of volume, not speed. Calculating just how fast the water moves is tricky, said Welvaert, the weather service hydrologist.

Whatever the speed, it’s too fast for most swimmers.

“Not many people make it across,” Lubinsky said.


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