KIDS DON'T FLOAT
Kids Don't Float began in Homer, Alaska, in early 1996. The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Homer School District establish 15 life jacket loaner stations in communities around Kachemak Bay. The concept was simple, you borrow a life jacket for free and return it when you are done.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources adopted this program in 2012 in which a life jacket loaner station is placed at boat landings around Wisconsin.
In 2014, working with the WDNR, the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway (FLOW) built the first of now 10 life jacket loaner stations. FLOW is responsible for securing permission to place the structure, constructing, maintaining, over-winter storage and periodic checking of the station for damage or other issues.
Here is a list of landings that FLOW has planted a Life Jacket Kiosks.
Mazomanie, Arena, Hwy 14 Bridge, Pecks, Otter Creek, Buena Vista, Orion, Victoria Riverside Park, Port Andrews, Floyd Von Haden and Woodman.
Playing Safe on the Rivers of Our Valley
By Jennifer Moore-Kerr
As the weather warms and thoughts turn to summer activities, we naturally turn to the rivers of our communities as sources of refreshment and fun. But it’s important to understand how to enjoy them safely. For valuable perspectives, I turned to the founder of the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, Timm Zumm, the mother of a young girl lost to the river, and some men fishing at Peck’s Landing early on a Saturday morning.
Eighteen years ago, Timm and his wife had a cabin near the Lower Wisconsin River outside of Mazomanie as an “escape,” a place to go be in nature. After learning that there was an ordinance against building a pier into the river, he bought a very used pontoon boat, thinking that he would outsmart the ordinance and anchor the boat by the cabin, thus creating a pier of sorts. Over time, however, he used the pontoon to explore. And those explorations ultimately resulted in a new chapter in the ongoing stewardship of the Lower Wisconsin River with the creation of FLOW. As he explored the waters up and down the river, he was appalled to see
what looked like a watery dumpster: car parts, old tires, bicycles, cheese vats and all kinds of garbage caught in tree snags, washed onto islands and floating downriver. He called some friends and started pulling garbage out of the river.
From that act grew what is now the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, a nonprofit organization committed “to protect and preserve the wilderness-type experience of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway.” The riverway, as a protected area encompassing a 92-mile stretch of the Wisconsin River from Prairie du Sac to Prairie du Chien, was created in 1989 in part by the work of the predecessor of FLOW, called Friends of the Lower Wisconsin River.
Since its inception, FLOW has done an amazing job of cleaning the riverway. Its mission now includes the “Kids Don’t Float” program. Three years ago, a river rat by the name of Bill Brummer approached Timm with an idea he had seen in Alaska and thought would be great here: have kiosks at boat landings for people to borrow life jackets, at no cost. This would be a
life-saving new direction for the organization, which had done so much work to encourage people to go out on the river. Now they could help those same people be safe while they were out there. Timm was quick to be on board, and with the cooperation of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the help of many good people, FLOW has now installed 10 kiosks from Mazomanie to Boscobel with as many as 150 life jackets available to be borrowed. All that is asked is that the life jackets be returned when users are done with them, and to call the number listed on the jacket to report any damage to it. As one helper said, “This is a great thing to be involved in. Where else can you know that what you are doing could save a life?”
On April 6, 2015, something happened on the Lower Wisconsin River near Gotham that pushed the program forward. A little girl, Angela Girton, just five days past her fifth birthday, fell into the river and was lost. She had spent her life playing by the river with her family and loved it. So on that beautiful spring day, after telling her mother, “Bye, Mommy, I love you. I’ll see you after your work,” she, her older sister and two other children left their babysitter’s to play at the park, and then went down to the river by themselves.
This terrible tragedy will stay with those who love Angela. Her mother, Jennifer Christianson, will forever wish she could have stayed home watching Angela instead of having to go to work that afternoon. Angela’s sister, who has had to slowly conquer her fear of even crossing the river by bridge, was recently able to sit on a rock by the water with her mother watching, because her mother doesn’t want her to be afraid, just safe. Their journey is one that none of us ever wants to have to travel. They have moved away from the River Valley — “it was just too hard to be that close” — but Jennifer comes back regularly, and on the anniversary of Angela’s death she puts flowers on the swingset where her daughter last played, and by the Kids Don’t Float kiosk dedicated to her at the Gotham boat landing.
Jennifer expressed such enormous gratitude to everyone who helped search for her daughter, and to Timm and FLOW for the dedication of the kiosk. She wants other parents to know that the logo on the kiosk isn’t just a catchy phrase.
“It is real, they really don’t float,” she said with such incomprehensible sadness. This time of year is especially hard for Angela’s family. It took 52 days before her body was found. Those days on the calendar are reminders of the trips down to the water’s edge in hopes that somehow Angela was just wandering in the woods. Please “watch your kids,” Jennifer beseeches all of us. Use the life jackets, prevent another tragedy.
When Jennifer and Holly see a butterfly now, they think of Angela, whose last drawing captured the joy of a “butterfly sleeping.” I, too, will now think of a little girl who saw beauty around her, but didn’t get to see her mom after work. I will also think of a mom, who in remembering this tragedy, and sharing it with a stranger, expressed such gratitude toward so many people for how they helped, and still demonstrates such courage and strength. I feel honored to have spoken with her.
Safety is such an important part of being at the river. Enjoying it is another. On a recent Saturday morning at Peck’s Landing near Spring Green there were six men lined up along the shore, some alone and some in pairs, with fishing poles, buckets, tackle boxes, coffee cups and chairs. A few were willing to talk to me about the value of the river for them. One man visits a different spot each month to try the fishing; Peck’s wasn’t so good that morning. Another once caught a 40-inch northern pike there, and between that memory, the closeness of the water to the parking lot (“easier for an old man,” he says, laughing) and the view of the Frank Lloyd
Wright Visitor Center, it is his very favorite place to throw in a line. And, finally, a man from southwest Madison educated me on the various ways to fish for different species. These men never get wet, but, for them, the river is a special place as well.
However you choose to enjoy the river this season, grab a life jacket, sunscreen and a water bottle (and maybe a book you waited all winter to read) and head down to the water where, with safety, you can enjoy a day of boating, fishing or playing on a sandbar. There are countless other stories to be told, dating as far back as there were people on our rivers’ shores to tell them. Perhaps this is an invitation for you to seek out those other stories, as well as to create your own.