When it comes to accidental drownings, 80% of people who die are not wearing a life jacket.
Last Thursday, after months of working on his Eagle Scout project meant to tackle that issue, Lachlan Brown broke ground on the first permanent “personal flotation device” loaner station in the valley.
Brown — along with fellow Scouts, family members and volunteers — toiled in the July heat at the South Park boat launch on the Snake River all day to put up the PFD kiosk.
The 8-foot-tall wooden structure will be home to 54 life jackets that anyone venturing out on the river is welcome and encouraged to borrow.
“The culture in Jackson for skiing is the more experience you get, the more gear you have,” Brown said. “But for being on the river, it’s opposite. Once you’re more experienced on the river, people stop wearing life jackets, and have less gear because they think that they’re good enough that they don’t need the gear.”
The project is right in line with the Boy Scout’s “Be Prepared” motto, and the river has personal significance to Brown — every year, his troop completes a 50-mile float along the Snake River starting at the South Park launch and ending at Palisades.
It’s a project that has been years in the making. Snake River Fund Director Jared Baecker said his organization has been thinking of ways to promote river safety, especially since three people died on the Snake in the summer of 2017. In two of those deaths the victims were not wearing life vests.
“We wanted to increase training and safety awareness opportunities,” Baecker said. “So we did a couple of things — we started providing some funds toward getting people more trained on swift water rescue, but we also allocated some funds towards achieving these PFD loaner stations.”
Baecker teamed up with Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation river recreation programmer Mike Estes last fall to look into how they could bring a PFD loaner station to Jackson. And when Estes and Baecker approached the Boy Scouts with this project idea earlier this year, high school sophomore Brown eagerly hopped on board.
The life jackets were provided by a grant from the Sea Tow Foundation, a nonprofit that has distributed over 50,000 life jackets to nearly 600 life jacket loaner stations across the country. They also received funds from the Jackson Hole Community Foundation to build the kiosks.
Brown is proud of the work he’s done on the project and of the benefit it will have on river safety.
“In 10 years I can come over and point to it and say, ‘Yeah, I built that for my Eagle project,’” he said.
Signage still needs to be added at the South Park location. The plan also includes a permanent kiosk at Astoria by mid-August.
But the temporary station, which was set up just before the Fourth of July, has already attracted attention. By 11 a.m. on the holiday, all 54 PFDs had been borrowed and were out on the river.
Not all of them, however, were returned right away.
As of July 24 only six adult PFDs remained available. After a public call for the return of the missing ones, dozens came back. The PFDs can be returned either at South Park Landing or downriver at Astoria.
“We just hope that people take advantage of them,” Estes said. “And return them.”
People who have Type III PFDs to donate can call Baecker at 734-6773.