LEWISTOWN - To the naked eye, the Juniata River may look like one of the more slow-moving rivers that flows through the mountains of Central Pennsylvania.
The "Gentle Juniata" starts its journey in central Huntingdon County as a tributary to the mighty Susquehanna River, and weaves its way through small towns that include Lewistown and McVeytown, until it spills back into the Susquehanna near Duncannon.
That same river lost its "gentle" reputation on July 21, however, after the lives of two young teens were taken from its grasp in McVeytown.
A pair of crosses mark the area where two teens drowned in July in the Juniata River between McVeytown and Pompey’s Island in Oliver Township.
Sentinel photo by
A pair of 13-year-old boys died while swimming near McVeytown with two other youths. Apparently, one boy jumped off a rock and landed in approximately 12 feet of water, according to a report from the Pennsylvania State Police Lewistown.
The boy that jumped off of the rock slipped into nearly 12 feet of water. When he began to struggle, the other boy leaped in and neither boy resurfaced, the report states.
Numerous emergency teams responded to the situation in McVeytown. City Hook and Ladder Captain Robert Barlett's crew did not have to deploy their rescue boat into the water. However, he did say that there are several rescue boats in the Juniata Valley in case an emergency like this happens again.
"There are four rescue boats in the area," Barlett said. "We have one here at City (Hook and Ladder), Brooklyn has one, along with Junction and Granville."
In light of the tragedy last month, there have been questions raised about how safe the river is: Are there hidden dangers on the Juniata River? Is it dangerous to assume that the river is safe and gentle?
The calm Juniata is only 4 feet deep for most of its length through the mid-state area. At the time of the drowning, the Juniata was 21 feet below flood stage, which is between 2.8 and 2.9 feet on average, according to information from the National Weather Service.
But, the dangers the two boys were put into could have possibly been a whirlpool effect that rivers sometimes produce.
As a result of turbulent flow of water, whirlpools usually form when an object is blocking the path of a smoothly flowing mass of water. When the water flows around the object, such as a rock or bridge support, the river begins to spiral, causing the water to suck downward.
Bobby Mort, an employee at his family-owned Lewistown Hunting and Fishing, has spent many days fishing the Juniata River and is surprised that the water can be nearly 12 feet in spots.
Mort has fished regularly on the Juniata and has never come in contact with any serious dangers.
"I've never seen a whirlpool," Mort said. "I know a couple places with a backdraft. You can get stuck in there, but it doesn't get deeper.
"The river is pretty steady and there are not too many rapids," Mort said. "It's pretty shallow. There are no trees crossing that boat or fishermen have troubles with."
Still, the local watermen said it is better to be safe than sorry. People can easily get complacent on the Juniata, Barlett said.
"The majority of the accidents that we go to are for people that are considered experts on the water," Barlett said. "We go out and the people's friends can't figure out why they are in distress. People get overconfident and sometimes think they are better than the river."
Like Mort, Barlett also believes that the Juniata River is a fairly calm mass of water. However, he said there are many places that people do not know about that can lead to dangerous situations.
"It can be deceiving. There are a few deep spots that people aren't aware of," Barlett said. "For the amount of water source and the amount of people we have, we're pretty fortunate as far as water accidents go."
The emergency responders at City Hook and Ladder are specially equipped to serve the needs of the river community, Barlett.
"We have our boat set up to take an ambulance crew with us on the water," Barlett said. "We also have room for an EMS person to work on the victim without having to wait until we are back on shore."
Barlett reminded people in the Juniata Valley to take proper precautions when they go out on the water. He said no matter what intensity of the river, there are always dangers - whether fishing or just enjoying a day on the water.
Even though the river that runs through this community's small towns is small itself, it is always safe to have a watchful eye, Barlett said.