REFUGE FROM THE HEAT

August 07, 2003 11:00 pm
KIDS LOVE IT: Elgin's pool was built in the early 1970s. Its capacity is 103 swimmers. (The Observer/DICK MASON).
KIDS LOVE IT: Elgin's pool was built in the early 1970s. Its capacity is 103 swimmers. (The Observer/DICK MASON).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

ELGIN — Elgin's Community Center pool is on pace to have one of its best years ever — unless an Arctic chill hits or forest fires again take the sizzle out of summer fun.

Total pool use this summer is higher than it has been in several years thanks to the extended heat wave Northeast Oregon recently experienced. Hot weather is welcomed by pool operators but sometimes it leads to problems.

Case in point: last summer.

In late August ash from regional forest fires blew into the Elgin pool. The ash clouded the pool, obscuring the bottom. The pool had to be closed for several days in late August, a time when it normally would have been packed.

It pained Pam Davis, pool director, to close the pool and not just because it meant a loss of revenue. Davis, a teaching assistant at Stella Mayfield Elementary School, understands the pool's value to the community.

"Without the pool there would be little for kids to do here in the summer, especially the young children,'' Davis said.

The pool is operated with this understanding in mind.

"We want the kids to have a place where they can have a good time and be safe,'' Davis said.

The pool's open sessions are the biggest draws for children. Open sessions run from 1 to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 1 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

Open swims draw 30 to 50 people regardless of the temperature. Almost all of these are children and teenagers. Many stay in the pool for hours. Often the only time some get out is when the pool is closed for safety breaks. The pool's chemicals and other features are checked by lifeguards during the breaks. The breaks are 20 minutes long in order to give children enough time to get snacks and do other things. If not for the breaks some children might not ever get out.

"They don't want to miss any of the fun,'' said Darlene Barker, the Community Center's caretaker.

As summer temperatures rise, so does the number of adults using the pool.

"When it hits 85 degrees quite a few more parents come in,'' Barker said.

More parents showed up in late July as temperatures frequently cracked the century mark. During one session the pool had at least 70 people in it. The capacity is 103 swimmers.

Elgin's pool, built in the early 1970s, has always been an outdoor facility. Initial plans called for it to have a roof, but tight finances prevented a roof from being built.

Today the pool holds the distinction of being the only public outdoor pool in Union and Wallowa counties which is not a hot springs fed pool. Operating a non-hot springs outdoor pool poses special challenges. A major one is maintaining proper chlorination levels. Heat and sun alter a pool's chlorination levels.

"We check the chlorine every hour,'' Barker said.

Chlorinating the pool is much safer than it once was. Two years ago chlorine pellets replaced chlorine gas, which carried the potential for leaks.

"I was always worrying about it,'' Davis said.

Several times it appeared that her fears were realized when the pool's chlorine alarm sounded. Fortunately all of the alarms were false.

"The police radio was triggering the alarm,'' Davis said.

In addition to the chlorination system, another feature added in recent years is fiberglass for the bottom and side of the pool. The fiberglass covers the pool's concrete and prevents paint from getting into the water.

The latest addition to the pool complex is a new boiler, which was added within the past year. It is more efficient than the old heater and allows the pool temperature to remain in the 82- to 84-degree range, an ideal spectrum for swimmers.

Some people insist that the pool has a wider temperature range because the water feels warmer or colder depending on what the air temperature is, Barker said.

Elgin's pool staff has been able to add new items and equipment in recent years because of support it receives from the community. One of the major sponsors is the Friends of the Community Center group. The organization conducts an auction each spring to raise funds for the pool.

"Without the Friends of the Community Center we would not be able to operate,'' Barker said.

The pool, managed and operated by Elgin's Park and Recreation District, also receives a big boost from the city, which provides free water.

"If we had to pay for our own water we would not be operating,'' Barker said. The pool takes eight hours to fill with a fire hose and holds 92,780 gallons of water.

In addition to help from the city and volunteers, the pool has benefited from help from Elgin's business community. Contractors, electricians and many other professionals have done work at the pool at no charge or for substantially reduced rates.

Elgin's pool annually operates from early June through the end of August. It has opened in early June each year due in large part to the efforts of Barker, who has worked at the Elgin Community Center for about 10 years. Barker is responsible for cleaning the pool, draining it, getting its equipment in working order and cleaning it each spring.

Cleaning the pool in the spring is a time consuming because the pool is not drained at the end of the summer. Water is left in because its weight prevents ground water from lifting the pool.

"It (the water left in the pool) stabilizes the pool,'' Barker said.

Barker's knowledge will soon have to be passed on to someone else because she will retire next spring. Barker will train someone to succeed her. Her successor will have big shoes to fill "She will be very hard to replace,'' Davis said. "Every time there is a problem I can't figure out, the first person I call is Darlene.''