Wardens, outfitter: River safety starts with wearing a life jacket

By Joanne M. Haas DNR Bureau of Law Enforcement - Warden Wire Summers make for long, busy Wisconsin River days for Department of Natural Resources Conservation Warden Supervisor Mike Green of Columbia County and Ryan Schmudlach, owner of the Wisc...

Terriann Mertz, left, and Jenny Carlson wear lifejackets as they get airborne tubing on Whitefish Lake near Gordon. (Jed Carlson/

By Joanne M. Haas

DNR Bureau of Law Enforcement – Warden Wire


Summers make for long, busy Wisconsin River days for Department of Natural Resources Conservation Warden Supervisor Mike Green of Columbia County and Ryan Schmudlach, owner of the Wisconsin Canoe Company in Spring Green in neighboring Sauk County.

The DNR warden and the businessman who work in these two tourist counties share a common goal: Make sure everyone is safe while enjoying the always popular Wisconsin River.


It’s a goal shared by other DNR wardens and outfitters statewide who serve the state residents and tourists who flock to the 430-mile Wisconsin River and the other 84,000 miles of rivers statewide to boat, fish, swim – and simply play. The Wisconsin River is a sure bet for fun for all ages.

River safety tips stem from a foundation belief of having respect for the river. Have fun, but be smart at all times because the dangers, most often, are not visible to the human eye.

This is why the two men agree on a remarkably simple safety tip – wear a life jacket.

Life jackets are a top safety tip

Schmudlach, who operates a canoe/kayak fleet of more than 150, says the river safety tips he shares with the roughly 5,000 customers each season are not to get people “all worked up” about their Wisconsin River trip, but simply to let them know “just about everything you’ll need to be aware of when it comes to staying safe on the river.” Green echoes the importance of wearing life jackets anytime you get into a boat -- any boat. It’s just plain smart.

“There are so many styles of life jackets these days. Some still think of them as uncomfortable and that the life jackets will interfere with fun – but that’s not the case,” Green says. “Just make sure you get the right size and the appropriate jacket for what you are doing. There are different styles for different activities."

The sad truth is most of the drowning victims -- on any Wisconsin waterbody -- were not wearing life jackets, Green says. There are some water enthusiasts who have the life jacket with them -- but physically not on them. “To think you can slip on a life jacket while you’re falling overboard or while panicking is unrealistic,” he says.

Most of the time, wardens and Schmudlach say, the Wisconsin River can be a safe and family-friendly place to spend a summer day or a few days. But, they stress, safety should always be on your mind. “Life jackets will keep you on top of the water if you walk off an unexpected drop off,” Schmudlach says of exploring shorelines and sandbars.


Sandbars are not permanent: they're either coming or going

Green and other wardens along the Wisconsin River stress the river’s flow is always rearranging sandbars – which are not permanent islands.

“Moving water means moving sand,” Green says. “If we have periods of high water it can move the sand flats and sandbars where people swim. Just because it was there last time doesn’t mean it will be there this time.”

Green says it is common for some river fans to use the same sand bars to recreate. “That means that under your favorite sandbar may be a steep drop off or a deep hole with current.”

Schmudlach agrees and says: “Sandbars are constantly moving, and the downstream end is often unstable and will not support a person walking on it ( think quicksand). This is particularly true when the sandbar is covered by a few inches of water.”

River's current can push over anyone, wear life jacket as you swim or walk sandbars

Schmudlach provides safety education on the Wisconsin Canoe Company’s website about the river’s personality and what to watch for.

“Even at normal rates, the current is strong enough to push an adult off their feet when wading in water more than waist deep,” Schmudlach says. “This flow is often not even noticeable to the person standing on the bank or wading in the shallow water at the edge of a sandbar. But, it is strong enough that even a strong swimmer may not be able to swim against it.”


Green advises keeping the children in life jackets while wading or swimming off sandbars especially as the current speeds up in high water flows. Adults best keep them on, too.

“It may be hard to keep your feet underneath you on the sand bars,” Green says. “You may walk out in the water where it’s flat, and then suddenly it slopes down and you start sliding down the hill. You find yourself trying to back pedal and you can’t get back up the hill and go under the water.”

The water depth on the downstream side of a sandbar can drop from a few inches to as much as 12 feet in the course of a couple steps, Schmudlach says. Typically this drop is only a few feet, but the downstream side should be avoided anyway. Instead, he advises wading into the river to the sides or upstream of the sandbar will allow you to get back to the same sandbar if there are any problems.

Fun awaits on the river - just follow these simple safety tips!

Schmudlach says thousands of people every season enjoy the river without any problems. Warden Green agrees.

“The goal is always to help everyone be safe so they can go home and talk about all the fun they had on the Wisconsin River,” Green says. “If you only remember one thing – make it to wear your life jacket whenever you are in a boat or in the Wisconsin River."

To learn more about staying safe on the river, review these safety tips:

  • Always wear a life jacket. All people in either canoe or kayak are required by law to have a wearable U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket on board.
  • Paddle with a buddy and/or let someone know your trip plans.
  • Match your skill level to water and weather conditions. Your skill level determines your safety.
  • Plan your canoe or kayak trip by knowing weather and water conditions – and what they could become with predicted weather changes.
  • Learn about the waterway you intend to paddle. Are there rapids, downed trees, rocks? Do you have the skills to maneuver in these conditions? If not, pick another waterway.
  • Have a map of the river showing crossroads and/or landowners.
  • Do not overload canoe or kayak.
  • Place belongings and dry clothing in a wet sack or other waterproof container.
  • Do not drink or use drugs before or during canoeing.
  • Wear foot protection.
  • Secure loose straps and gear, and don’t tie people or pets into a boat.
  • Balance your boat evenly and keep weight low for stability.

For more on the different styles of life jackets, visit this DNR webpage!

What To Read Next
Get Local