By Michael Virtanen
In her first summer lifeguarding at a state beach in the southern Adirondacks, Madison MacFarland rescued a 5-year-old boy who got in over his head, and helped retrieve a handful of kayakers and canoeists who overturned in Great Sacandaga Lake.
“It was quite an experience,” she said. A student at Sage College this spring, MacFarland intends to return to the lake’s Northampton Beach this summer if everything works out.
The Department of Environmental Conservation will need her. Despite publicly promoting the job, which last summer paid more than $13 an hour and with most sites offering free housing, there has been a shortage of DEC lifeguards for the past several years.
Nobody’s sure precisely why. State officials said it’s a trend nationally, and the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has the same issue.
The staffing shortage limited swimming hours at some of the 15 DEC-run beaches in the Adirondacks and two in the Catskills where regulations permit swimming only when a guard is on duty. A few beaches closed early last year when some of the 33 DEC summer guards returned early to school or sports practices.
Many lifeguards are high school or college students, said Barb Palmateer, the department’s campground program coordinator. The DEC is hoping to attract teachers who have summers off and retirees as well, she said.
It’s not just about the money, though the pay rate is rising to $14.37 this season. It’s also a summertime ticket to the Adirondack and Catskill parks.
“I spend a lot of time up in Northville over the summer, so I love being up there,” said MacFarland, a 20-year-old who lives in nearby Broadalbin. “But it was gratifying to know that I was helping people and I could potentially save lives, and people really appreciated having us there, which felt really good.”
Her lifeguard and first-aid certifications are valid for another year. She’ll have to retake the DEC’s swim, rescue and CPR test before the summer season.
DEC would like to return to its former staffing of about 50 lifeguards, up from last year’s 33, Palmateer said. The decline started over the past decade.
For the past three years the agency has offered a free, four-day waterfront lifeguarding course where students can obtain Red Cross certifications, take the swim test and list their preferences for campground assignments.
The free training, which was offered this year in Amsterdam near the southern edge of the Adirondacks during a March school break, might otherwise cost about $400, said Mike Buzzelli, DEC recreation manager.
It has yielded probably two new DEC lifeguards each time, Palmateer said. “We really are trying to do everything possible to fill these positions for the upcoming season,” she said.
MacFarland got certified through a course at Hartwick College, where she was a student last year, and took her swim test at a school pool in Amsterdam. She was never on a team but has been a swimmer since she was a toddler, she said.
At Northampton Beach, she worked full-time along with two other lifeguards, opening about 10 a.m. and leaving at 6:30 or 7:30 in the evening. When all three worked they opened both sections of the beach, with two guards in raised chairs and another circulating. On a few days when only one guard was working, they opened one section, and closed that during mandated 15-minute rest breaks every two hours and during lunch breaks, as required.
“You get a little tired just sitting up there. You wouldn’t imagine it but surprisingly you do,” MacFarland said.
Her rescue of the 5-year-old who couldn’t swim had her heart racing.
“I kind of had my eye on him because I suspected that he wasn’t that great in the water. But you never know with children. Sometimes they can be like fish in the water and sometimes they have no idea what to do.”
Children normally aren’t allowed past buoys marking 4-foot depths, she said, and no one is allowed past the 6-foot buoys. The boy approached the 4-foot mark and started bobbing. His parents were nowhere in sight.
“And the second I saw him start bobbing I jumped off the chair and ran in to get him. Luckily I caught him soon enough where he just coughed up some water.”
The boy seemed panicked. “You could tell he wasn’t sure if he’d be OK. But I told him to just keep coughing. Coughing is a great sign that you can breathe and that they are coughing it up. He coughed everything up. We got him back on his feet and we walked him back to his mother.”
Rescuing overturned kayakers, who are required to wear flotation vests, involved pulling them into the lifeguards’ small boat with a pole or ring buoy and towing the kayak back to shore. That happened at least five times, typically on weekends, when the beach and nearby canoe and kayak rentals were busiest, she said.
“There was one gentleman who was a little too heavy for his life vest it seemed,” she said. “That caused a little bit of a problem, but one of the boys that I worked with brought the paddleboard out actually, along with the paddleboat, and he swam the gentleman back on the paddleboard.”
The rescues, as well as any serious first-aid treatment provided by the guards, are documented in incident reports. There were 11 last summer at the waterfronts, 16 the year before, and four in 2016, according to the DEC.
The guards’ first job is to prevent incidents, and they also do simple assists that don’t rise to that level, Palmateer said.
Usually once or twice a season, there’s a heart attack or cardiac arrest at a DEC campground where a lifeguard is the first responder, Buzzelli said.
The department also has six beaches in the Adirondacks and two in the Catskills where swimming is allowed without lifeguards, generally smaller water bodies with other staff on duty.
State health officials advise swimming at these regulated beaches, with supervision and where water is periodically sampled for pollutants like coliform, though swimming is allowed at the swimmers’ risk on many other waters. In the Adirondack backcountry or at unmonitored lakes, New York’s guidance advises caution near dams or large boats that can create an undertow, and against crossing safety wire or water hazard markers. State officials also recommend against swallowing water, because of the chance of bacteria or parasites, or swimming in discolored water.