Traverse City area dealing with 30+ water deaths

Posted at 10:10 AM, Oct 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-28 10:10:13-04

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Marley Cummins-Roose’s bright blue eyes and good-natured grin echo her father’s.

The toddler will never see that herself — she was only 6 weeks old when her dad, North Cummins, drowned in West Grand Traverse Bay in June 2017.

“She has his eyes, his facial features. She’s laughing all the time,” said Marley’s mother, Autumn Roose. “North was a very happy-go-lucky guy — the life of the party. He tried to make everyone smile.

“He was a good father.”

North Cummins joins at least 30 others who’ve succumbed to local waters in the last five years, according to numbers compiled by the Traverse City Record-Eagle .

Each leaves loved ones behind.

Roose copes in her own way — by refusing to swim, even in pools — and gives her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter regular lessons in water safety.

She ponders how she’ll someday tell her sweet, blonde-headed daughter how her father died.

“Eventually I’m going to have to tell her,” Roose said, pausing. “That’s a scary thing. I’m not sure how I’m going to do it.

“I think, if he was here, she would’ve been a daddy’s girl.”

Cummins was 18 when a wave toppled him and a friend out of their canoe and into the still-frigid waters of the bay a few hundred yards off the Lake Michigan coast.

Roose could only watch from the shore.

“You never think something like this is going to happen, especially to good people,” she said. “And then it does.”

Most area victims — 26 of 30 — were male, and all but three were 18 or older.

It’s not unusual.

Men are more likely to take risks, according to Dave Benjamin, spokesman for the water safety-focused Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. A US Center for Disease Control and Prevention survey shows men rate their swimming ability more highly than most women.

“People have this false sense of security — ‘I know how to swim, I don’t have to worry about drowning,’” Benjamin said. “Your swimming ability in a pool is not the same as in open water. That’s not swimming — it’s basically bathing.”

Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich sees the most drownings between May and August, when more people are swimming, kayaking and boating. Not every victim is a vacationer, though — he said the split is near 50-50.

Record-Eagle data shows about 17 locals and 13 visitors among drowning victims in the last five years. Borkovich said the majority of his rescue calls involve distressed canoers and kayakers, either owned or rented.

The problem is the confidence that comes with the vessels, he said — and the training that doesn’t.

“It takes $300 to $500 to buy a kayak, and that’s it. There’s no safety class,” Borkovich said. “When you tip, they’re very difficult to get back into.”

The majority of kayakers don’t bring life jackets that might’ve made the difference, he added.

“It does no use if it’s strapped to the front of your paddleboard,” he said.

Cummins spent his final day with friend Isaac Marshall, tracing the West Grand Traverse Bay coastline in a borrowed canoe.

The sun still stood high at 7 p.m., and its warm light only made the 46-degree waters feel colder.

The pair shared some beers before trekking out, using a two-by-four when they couldn’t find a paddle.

Cummins characteristically wore a goofy grin and teased Marshall by rocking the canoe. The pair’s laughs and jaunts brought a smile to Roose, who watched the men idly from shore.

They didn’t consider life jackets, even as they strayed further from land.

They sailed farther.

The waves crested taller.

Cummins jostled the canoe again, laughing. A wave caught and the pair found themselves thrust beneath the choppy surface, bubbles cascading around them.

A woman on the shore spotted the distressed pair and shouted out. Roose shot to attention.

“I thought it was some kind of joke,” she said.

Roose dialed 911. Another bystander boarded his own kayak and paddled toward the men.

Marshall and Cummins, now clinging to a sinking canoe, had a choice to make.

Marshall told his friend to swim.

At the time, the 17-year-old said he wasn’t sure when Cummins’ head disappeared beneath the waves behind him.

“I asked Isaac after, what the look on his face was — the last look (on his face),” Roose said. “He was wide-eyed and terrified.”

The kayaker met Marshall and pulled him aboard. He scanned the chilly water for the teen’s friend.

But Cummins was gone.

Responders found the young father’s body about 90 minutes later, floating and still about 500 yards from shore.

Their attempts to revive him failed.

“He was too far gone,” Roose said. “I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do.

“We’d just had a baby.”

Cases like Cummins’ are all too common — almost half of drownings in the last five years claimed the lives of local victims who knew the area’s waters. They tend to underestimate just how cold the deep bay and even inland lakes can be in early summer and fall, Benjamin said.

The shock of the icy waves forces your body to pull heat inward and protect vital organs, Benjamin added.

“In cold water, your body has a nervous response,” he said. “You start losing control of your extremities — your fingers, then arms and legs.”

Then panic sets in.

“Panic is one of the first stages of drowning. If they can’t get over the panic, they’re likely not going to survive,” Benjamin said. “You have to stay at the surface and keep breathing.”

Know what you’re getting into when you go for a swim or kayaking, he said.

And be careful.

“Everyone has a family somewhere,” Borkovich said. “Stop and think.”

Officials recommend people use a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket when boating, kayaking, canoeing or paddleboarding in water deeper than your height.

Check weather and water temperature reports before venturing out. Dress for the water temperature.

Be aware of wave size and signs of rip currents — discolored, choppy water and foam-capped waves. Swim parallel to shore to escape the current.

Stay calm and float if you find yourself in open water. If near your kayak or another vessel, stay close for visibility and use it as a flotation device.

Don’t drink alcohol before or while swimming or going out on the water.