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To be feared or enjoyed?: Drownings cast shadow on Red River recreation

A photo from 1936 or '37 shows divers performing along the Red River in a water pageant put on by Fargo Parks. This four-level diving tower was on the Moorhead side of the river. Courtesy: NDSU Archives1 / 2
The Red River that flows between Fargo and Moorhead is a popular place for fishing, boating or just sitting around and relaxing. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service2 / 2

FARGO — The Fargo-Moorhead area has had three drownings on the Red River this summer. Such deaths are a factor in the public's sometimes conflicted view of the murky waterway that flows north.

In the wake of the latest drowning, Fargo Police Officer Jessica Schindeldecker said the department isn't telling people not to go on the river, but to use common sense.

"It's important to be aware of the hazards and be responsible, especially when consuming alcohol," she said.

Police identified the man who drowned Monday, Aug. 7, as Hari Kumar Pradhan, 32, of Fargo.

Pradhan had been fishing from the river bank in Lindenwood Park with two others when he jumped in to swim sometime before 1:30 p.m., but didn't resurface. Divers recovered his body about 6 p.m. near where he was last seen.

Alcohol has not been confirmed as a factor in Pradhan's death nor in the late June drowning of 24-year-old Fanuel Asrat. Their toxicology reports are pending, Schindeldecker said.

Asrat, a swimming instructor at Minnesota State University Moorhead, drowned while swimming near rapids in the Red early on June 29.

Alcohol use has been confirmed, however, in the summer's first drowning.

Moorhead Police Lt. Tory Jacobson said 29-year-old David Tikayne had alcohol in his system when he disappeared in the river June 5. Tikayne's body was recovered 10 days later.

Fargo Park District Executive Director Joel Vettel, previously a Fargo police lieutenant, said incidents like those may be difficult to prevent.

"We can't really save that element from doing that. That's just risky behavior," Vettel said.

Christine Holland, executive director of River Keepers, an organization dedicated to educating people about the Red, expressed sadness and frustration over the drownings.

"You can't always reach the people you need to reach," she said.

River Keepers encourages recreation on the Red, but doesn't advocate swimming in it.

"You don't know what's underneath," Holland said.

Instead, canoeing, kayaking and fishing are great ways to enjoy the river, provided a person is with a companion, wearing a personal flotation device, and is sober, she said.

Vettel is also a big advocate of river recreation, saying the community needs to embrace the Red instead of fear it.

"You have to recognize it's a moving body of water and have to respect that anytime it has the potential to pull you down," Vettel said.

But if a person takes safety measures, "you're going to be just fine," he said.

The potential hazards of the Red River, including spring flooding and floating debris, are well known, and in more recent history, people have stayed away because it was considered a liability.

Though, decades ago the Red River was a recreation magnet in Fargo-Moorhead.

According to North Dakota State University archives, "everyone swam in the Red River"

until Fargo's first swimming pool was built in the 1930s.

There was even a tall diving platform on the Moorhead side, and crowds would gather on both river banks to watch swimming and diving exhibitions.

The Red River is enjoying a recreational rebirth now, and advocates hope these drownings don't deter others from safely enjoying the area's dominant geographical feature.

"It is a gem in our community," Vettel said.