Honoring Meagan O’Meara Clark by Keeping Safe While Boating and Floating
Meagan O’Meara Clark met up with her step-brother and friends on a hot summer day in July.
The day was a typical sunny, hot day not unlike most Julys in Oregon. The water, however, remained cold. The float was a popular one, from Barton Park to Carver Park, roughly a 5.5-miles, on the meandering river, with shallow, sloped areas making for fun “chutes” and gravel bars to pull over for respite.
After several hours of floating and taking swim breaks, Meg went in for one final dip off her float tube just before the take-out at the Carver Park boat ramp. Meg did not resurface.
The area where Meg was recovered turned out to be a deep eddy. An eddy is an area of circular current that tends to flow in the opposite direction from the main river current. Eddies can be caused by an obstruction in the river like a rock, root wad, or fallen tree. As the water flows around the obstruction, some of the water flows back on itself to fill in the space before circling back in the direction of the main flow.
Meg’s family firmly believe if she’d worn a life jacket, she would be here today. Meg was a good swimmer and very comfortable in the water.
In 2015, Meg’s family created “Meg’s Moments”, a nonprofit that collected cash donations and gently used life jackets for the sole purpose of giving them away to people recreating on the Clackamas River. The goal was simple: help save lives and honor Meg’s memory.
Family members came out each year until 2021 giving away thousands of life jackets. “We don’t want anyone else to drown on this river,” says Meg’s father, Rob O’Meara. With a quaking voice filled with passion and grief, he said, “It’s preventable. A simple thing like wearing a life jacket. It doesn’t matter how well you can swim. Meg was a great swimmer. It didn’t matter.”
In 2021, the nonprofit dissolved, but the mission did not. The remaining life jacket stock from Meg’s Moments is being given to the Nautical Safety Foundation, whose mission is to give life jackets to organizations that host life jacket loaner kiosks. The life jackets will be available for use at kiosks along the Clackamas River to honor her memory and a tribute is now included on the Marine Board’s Life Jacket Loaner Station page.
Many floaters are unaware of is the toll environmental stressors can have on the body. Sun exposure, dehydration (from lack of water or consuming beverages that dehydrate the body like alcohol or caffeinated drinks), glare, wind, and wave action can cause fatigue, a headache, imbalance, slow reaction time, and disorientation. Then there’s the water temperature. Oregon’s waterways are cold year-round. The best choice boaters and floaters can make when enjoying Oregon’s waterways is to find a life jacket you like, and one you’ll wear. Even on those hot days in July.
Newer float tubes designed for rivers have mesh bottoms, which help prevent too much of the body from being submerged. These are a great option for preventing shock and strain to the body during floats that last multiple hours.
There are some common denominators when looking at incident and fatality information on Oregon’s rivers, including the Clackamas:
• Life jacket not worn or not fitted properly
• Alcohol consumption
• Extended submersion in cold water
• Entrapment in rope or river obstructions (downed trees, root wads, rocks, other submerged objects, etc.)
It is usually a combination of two or more of the above factors that cause fatalities or serious accidents.
The Oregon State Marine Board advocates that everyone wear a life jacket, especially when in and around rivers or shorelines with steep, unstable banks. Drop-offs and underwater obstructions, combined with strong currents catch people off-guard. And even if you’re a good swimmer, everyone responds the same to cold water immersion. It takes roughly one minute to calm the breath and stop hyperventilating. It only takes 10 minutes of immersion to feel the effects of cold water. Most people become hypothermic within 30 minutes in Oregon’s waterways. Life jackets not only buy you time by keeping the head above water to regain breathing but time to self-rescue. Life jackets also help keep the core of the body warm. Even when the air temperature is hot outside, wearing a life jacket is the best choice one can make.
In partnership with Meg’s Moments and the Nautical Safety Foundation, the Marine Board, working with other willing partners, offers grant assistance to build and maintain life jacket loaner stations around the state. The agency has a life jacket loaner station map to help families plan their adventures around where life jackets can be borrowed and returned for the day.
Staff at the Marine Board owe deep gratitude to the O’Meara family and friends for the money raised through Meg’s Moments to purchase life jackets and for the many donating organizations throughout the years. The Marine Board will honor Meg’s memory on its Life Jacket Loaner Station page and social media posts throughout the summer months each season.
Rob says, “If a life jacket can help just one person. Just one when they need it, then Meg’s memory will live on.”
So, on those sizzling hot summer days when the water calls, think of Meg…and wear a life jacket.