- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 15, 2015

BLACK RIVER FALLS, Wis. (AP) - As the Midwest’s premier site for scuba divers, Lake Wazee draws about 1,500 divers each year, according to Jackson County’s forestry and parks department.

But the high interest also means that the lake gets more than its share of fatal accidents. At least nine divers have died in it over the past two decades, including two since June 27, after they swam too deep for their training and equipment or went into cardiac arrest while submerged.

“To have two so close to each other just seems like a fluke,” said Tim Emmons, a dive instructor in Winona, Minnesota.

The peak summer season brings a higher volume of divers and a greater potential for fatal accidents, according to public safety officials and dive trainers.

“It’s not the lake’s fault,” Jackson County Sheriff Duane Waldera said. “It’s individuals pushing their limits and abilities.”

The 146-acre lake east of Black River Falls sits at the site of the former county iron mine quarry and the operation, haul roads and trees used to stabilize them were submerged when Lake Wazee was created.

“It’s like swimming through a petrified forest,” said Keith Cormican, a dive trainer and head of the Jackson County Dive Unit. “It’s so unique.”

Lake Wazee also is popular among swimmers because of its white sand beach and the 1,300-acre surrounding recreation area that offers fishing, camping and biking trails.

Divers are attracted to Lake Wazee because of its visibility, depth and diverse aquatic life, the La Crosse Tribune reported.

“Wazee is such a huge attraction for diving,” the sheriff said. “But the increase of interest draws potential risks because divers don’t ready themselves for that type of environment. They may think they are prepared to dive, but this is a different type of lake.”

Lake Wazee is the state’s deepest inland lake at 355 feet, and its depth can be dangerous if divers aren’t watching their gauges, according to local diver Sarah Gillett, who has dived in the lake more than 30 times in three years.

Officials caution divers not to push their limits or abilities, and they recommend divers are prepared before entering the water.

“The lake gets a bad reputation but the lake doesn’t kill people,” Cormican said. “It’s people’s choices that kill people.”

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