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Our Opinion: Have fun but be safe while enjoying our lakes and rivers

Every winter, as the temperatures drop below freezing and ice begins to form on lakes, anglers and others who would venture out are warned to be wary of thin ice.

In fact, the Minnesota DNR and law enforcement agencies consistently hammer home the idea that no ice is 100 percent safe. That same idea should be carried over to summer—no open water is 100 percent safe, and caution always needs to be used whether boating, swimming, canoeing, kayaking or any other way in which we utilize our 10,000 lakes.

We're in the heart of the summer, and already there have been numerous drownings in Minnesota, including a few here in the Brainerd lakes area. What led to the drownings differs from case to case, but these tragedies drive home the need for preparation and awareness while out on the water.

To that end, the American Red Cross offers the following tips:

• Swim in designated areas supervised by lifeguards.

• Always swim with a buddy; do not allow anyone to swim alone. Even at a public pool or a lifeguarded beach, use the buddy system!

• Ensure that everyone in the family learns to swim well. Enroll in age-appropriate Red Cross water orientation and Learn-to-Swim courses.

• Never leave a young child unattended near water and do not trust a child's life to another child; teach children to always ask permission to go near water.

• Have young children or inexperienced swimmers wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets around water, but do not rely on life jackets alone.

• Establish rules for your family and enforce them without fail. For example, set limits based on each person's ability, do not let anyone play around drains and suction fittings, and do not allow swimmers to hyperventilate before swimming under water or have breath-holding contests.

• Even if you do not plan on swimming, be cautious around natural bodies of water including ocean shoreline, rivers and lakes. Cold temperatures, currents and underwater hazards can make a fall into these bodies of water dangerous.

• If you go boating, wear a life jacket! Most boating fatalities occur from drowning.

• Avoid alcohol use. Alcohol impairs judgment, balance and coordination; affects swimming and diving skills; and reduces the body's ability to stay warm.

That same vigilance is needed for boaters, and local and state officials are stressing safety through specific campaigns.

The enhanced efforts to curb alcohol- and drug-related boating accidents and deaths are part of Operation Dry Water, a nationwide campaign now in its 10th year of highlighting the dangers of boating under the influence of drugs and alcohol and the strict penalties for boating while intoxicated.

In Minnesota and across the nation, BWI is the leading contributing factor in boating accidents and fatalities. Of the 12 fatal boating accidents that occurred last year in Minnesota, six involved alcohol, according to the DNR. Over the past five years, alcohol has been a factor in about 44 percent of boating fatalities.

DNR officials also are warning anglers, boaters and anyone who recreates on or near areas where recent rainfall has raised water levels should exercise extreme caution—or stay away altogether until the water recedes, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

However you choose to enjoy the lakes and rivers, be prepared, be alert and be safe while out on the water. It only takes a second for a serious or tragic accident to happen.