Amid lifeguard shortage, an Anchorage mom saves 2 girls from near-drowning at a city lake

Hanna Eklund was sunning herself at Goose Lake last Saturday afternoon when she saw a girl out in the water, in distress.

It was a rare 70-plus-degree day and the beach was packed.

“Kids playing in the water, throwing a ball,” said Eklund, who lives in West Anchorage. “People playing music on the beach. Teenagers doing their TikToks.”

Toward the middle of the lake, Eklund said, she saw a girl who looked to be about 10 flailing in the water, her hair stuck to her face, her arms waving. She could faintly hear the girl yelling. She thought it seemed like the girl was drowning.

There was no one to help: For the first time in recent memory, Goose Lake has no on-duty lifeguard this summer.

Eklund, who is originally from Finland and spent childhood summers swimming in lakes, got up and waded into the water.

By the time she reached the girl, Eklund was swimming, not walking. She could see the girl was afraid.


“She looked at me clearly and said, ‘Don’t let go, don’t let go,’ ” she said.

It was then that she realized the girl was not alone — a teenage girl nearby was struggling in the lake water too. Both were panicking and began to reach for Eklund, pulling her down.

Eventually, Eklund, who described herself as a strong swimmer but no expert, was able to carry the girls to where they could stand on their feet.

A few days later, Eklund, who has lived in Anchorage for more than 15 years, is still thinking about the close call.

“Everything happened so fast,” she said.

This year there are no lifeguards at Jewel Lake or Goose Lake, the city’s two developed swimming beaches, said Mike Braniff, Anchorage’s parks and recreation director. While the lakes have had limited lifeguard hours in some recent summers, this is the first year in recent memory that they’ve had no lifeguards at all, he said.

Parks and recreation staff removed shallow area buoys and lifeguard stands as visual cues that the beaches are not overseen by a lifeguard, he said. Warning signage that says no lifeguard is on duty has been posted.

The reason? A persistent shortage of lifeguards.

“We have been on a long downward trajectory in our ability to hire lifeguards and retain them,” Braniff said.

Anchorage is not alone: A nationwide lifeguard shortage has lakes and swimming pools from Vermont to sweltering Las Vegas cutting back services and warning the public to swim at their own risk.

About one-third of the 309,000 pools in America will be reducing their hours or closing their pools in 2024 because of a lifeguard shortage, according to the American Lifeguard Association.

This summer, with only 11 lifeguards, the municipality chose to staff indoor swimming pool programs instead of the lakes, Braniff said.

“We finally got to the point where we had to make a tough decision — are we going to staff the lakes, or are we going to prioritize (pool) programming?” Braniff said.

Summer pool offerings, including lap swim, open swim and family swim programs, are popular and well-attended, he said.

Braniff said he hadn’t heard about the reported near-drowning at Goose Lake other than through media questions. He said he hasn’t heard of any drownings at Anchorage lakes this summer.

The lifeguard deficit is not a budget issue, really, said Braniff: Lifeguard jobs with the municipality start at around $15.50 an hour and are open to people 16 and older.

Braniff said it has become much harder to hire young people. Fewer teenagers seem to work summer jobs, and more are focused on the demands of sports and activities, he said. Lifeguarding is the only city parks and recreation job available to people under 18, but requires that applicants be certified lifeguards. The city will reimburse the $200 cost of the class if a lifeguard stays more than 30 days on the job, but doesn’t compensate for the time it takes to earn the credential, he said.


Braniff said he’d like to be able to pay more, but raising pay is a process and is part of union negotiations that happen every few years.

“It is absolutely not a budget issue,” he said. “It is not that we lack the funding, it’s simply the ability to be able to say, ‘We need to pay $20 an hour if we’re going to expect to fill positions’” and then quickly implement that, he said.

It’s true that the municipality isn’t due to renegotiate its contract with municipal workers, including lifeguards, until 2025, said Paul Hatcher, president of the AMEA Local 16 union. Hatcher thinks the municipality should also look beyond wages when trying to attract young lifeguards. His own son worked as a lifeguard, and it’s a job that takes skill and time, he said.

After everyone was back on dry land after last Saturday’s close call, Eklund sat with the two girls. Her family shared some watermelon and soda with them. The older girl, 14, was in town on a group trip from Eagle River, Eklund said. The 14-year-old had noticed the younger girl — a stranger — going under the water and had waded out to reach her before getting in too deep herself. Both girls were scared and took time to recover, Eklund said.

The city is not contemplating closing lakes to recreation, Braniff said. Nor is it planning to add lifeguards back to the Anchorage lakes this summer, he said.

Eklund said she’ll be going back to the lake with her family the next time it’s a warm sunny day. But she’ll look at it differently, she said.

One of the most chilling parts, Eklund said, was how busy the beach was, and how little anyone else seemed to notice what was happening out in the water.

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.