Kokosing River Millwood

A view of the Kokosing River from the Bridge Street access point in Millwood.

MOUNT VERNON – In response to two drownings that have occurred on the Kokosing River in the past month, the Knox County Park District plans to reinforce river safety at access points through new, informational signage.

While the river itself is an independent property – it is wild, not owned by a private or governmental agency – the park district does control the river’s access points in Knox County. According to director Lori Totman, the park district plans to install signage Wednesday that will include an attention-grabbing acronym – ACT NOW – to communicate key river safety tips, as well as a QR code that will direct smartphone users to the U.S. Geological Survey’s website, so they can check the height and flow rate of the river before heading in.

“We’re going to start educating people first and foremost,” Totman said.

The signs will be temporary at first, likely laminated pieces of paper posted on the kiosks at each river access point. Eventually, the goal is to have stand-alone signs, Totman said.

Totman created the ‘ACT NOW’ acronym as a way to make key river safety tips more memorable. It stands for:

  • Always wear a life jacket or personal flotation device
  • Check flow rates before entering the river
  • Take water and air temperatures into consideration
  • Never, ever swim, tube, kayak or canoe alone (especially those with less experience)
  • Observe the river for fast-flowing currents and murkiness
  • Watch for river hazards such as fallen trees, large rocks and debris

While some of the tips, like the one concerning life jackets, might seem basic, Totman said they are often overlooked. Other tips, such as the need to check flow rates and water temperature, are likely less known.

“It’s not common knowledge for a lot of people on the river,” Totman said. “We’ve gotta start educating people somewhere.”

The sign will contain a QR code that will direct smartphone users to the U.S. Geological Survey’s website, which tracks data such as river discharge (the volume of water that passes a given location within a given period of time, expressed in cubic feet per second) and water levels. Those without smartphones are encouraged to check these statistics on a computer before leaving for the river.

The USGS records data on every national waterway, including Kokosing River, every 15 minutes. The Kokosing River’s gauge is located near Riverside Park in Mount Vernon, Totman said.

According to Totman, a discharge rate of 100-300 cubic feet per second is acceptable for activities such as swimming or paddling. When it’s less than 100, people are typically having to drag their canoes down the river. When it’s more than 300, people are running the risk of being swept away by the current.

In addition, Totman said people should not enter a river unless water and air temperatures combine to be at least 120 degrees. A colder combination could cause hypothermia, which she said many people do not think about when they enter a river.

“You can have an 80-degree day very early in the year, but if the water temperature is extremely cold and you get out of a kayak with no wetsuit on, hypothermia’s going to set in pretty quickly,” Totman said.

Among other lesser-known river safety concerns, Totman advised paddlers and swimmers to be wary of deceptively strong undercurrents (water often flows faster beneath the surface) and large objects in the water, which can serve as strainers (places where people can get fatally stuck if they are pulled under by a current).

There are 10 Kokosing River and two Mohican River access points in Knox County, Totman said. The park district’s new signs will stand prominently at each one.

“I would hope that the acronym perhaps would grow, and that if people would think about that,” Totman said. “People do not want to read signs, and they do not want to read wordy signs. So if they can just get in their heads, ‘I need to have a life jacket on. I need to think about not just the air temperature, but I need to think about water temperature. I need to think about checking the QR code, the flow rate, or looking up the information before I get on the river because I don’t have a smartphone – going to the USGS site, learning what the flow rate is.’

“That’s my hope anyway, that the acronym will start catching and people will really start thinking through some of these.”

Totman has been in discussions with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Mohican State Scenic River Council since May on how to make Ohio’s rivers safer. ODNR is looking at developing statewide river safety signage, and officials have been meeting with Kokosing and Mohican river councils to flesh out ideas.

After two tragedies occurred on the Kokosing River in June, Totman said she felt compelled to respond quickly by adding educational signage at a local level.

“I think it’s time to really start educating people about rivers and river conditions,” she said.

The Kokosing River tragedies that occurred in June both took place near Honey Run Park in Millwood. Mark Booth, 40, of Mount Vernon, went missing on June 6 when he was reportedly swept up by a current. He was found the next morning 4,500 feet downstream. Darnal Narayan, 15, of Columbus, went missing on June 11 near the same location. He was last seen swimming and wading before he went under. Narayan was found one week later, 48 miles downstream in Muskingum County.

In Totman’s six years as park district director, these two deaths were the first she’d seen on the Kokosing River. Totman said she has made river safety a priority in years past and has experimented with different ideas at river access points. Several years ago, she thought about implementing a gate system at each access point.

“It became a nightmare because rivers are wild, and there truly are no entities – private, local, state or federal agencies – that oversee and maintain rivers. I was putting the burden on [the] park district that, again, I don’t have the personnel,” Totman said.

By using QR codes instead of pamphlets, Totman said the new signage will be cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

While individuals ultimately have the final call as to whether or not they embark on a river, Totman hopes the park district’s new safety measure will make visitors think before doing so.

“They may not remember [the whole acronym],” she said. “But if they at least remember three of the six points, I’ll feel like we’ve accomplished something.”

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.