River patrol is on duty to assist and educate

POLK COUNTY -- Friday the 13th really did turn out to be an unlucky day for a group skiing on the Willamette River near Independence.

POLK COUNTY -- Friday the 13th really did turn out to be an unlucky day for a group skiing on the Willamette River near Independence.

What started as a fun escape on the first day of a stretch of uncommonly hot weather was interrupted when their boat's ski rope got caught and wrapped around the propeller, killing the engine.

The mishap left the skiers and several small dogs on board without so much as a paddle and drifting away from where they launched.

A little after 7 p.m., Sheriff's Marine Patrol Boat Captain Dean Bender and Deputy Krista Rowland were motoring south on the river on that day's shift when the group saw them.

The stranded crew waved furiously to flag the officers down. They were in serious need of a tow.

Bender said the marine patrol doesn't normally tow boats due to the potential for damage to either vessel. He made an exception because that section of river was calm and flat and the boaters, some of which were standing waist deep in the river holding the boat, were in a pretty desperate situation.

Rowland tossed them a line.

"I need everybody to put on life jackets," Bender yelled to the boat passengers.

A short ride later, the grateful group was back to their truck, pushing and dragging the out-of-commission vessel onto its trailer.

The average shift on the water isn't nearly as heroic for the marine patrol, unless you are a kid who likes ice cream.

At the beginning of that evening's shift, Rowland and Bender stopped an operator who left the dock at Wallace Marine Park too fast in a boat he just bought. They sent him back to the dock for a safety inspection and to issue a warning to remind him of the rules regarding "no wake" zones near docks.

What was supposed to be a brief stop got significantly longer when other boaters made requests for boat safety inspections.

Spotting a few children in properly fitting life jackets, Bender wanders back to the jet boat.

"This is the best part of the job," he said, unlatching a storage compartment and taking out a stack of coupons.

Part of an incentive program through the Oregon State Marine Board, the coupons are rewards for children wearing life jackets.

Bender walks along the dock to the boat Rowland is inspecting and hands a young boy a coupon. The boy, probably no older than 4, hugs Bender in return for the treat.

As hot as it was, Aug. 13 wasn't a heavy boating traffic day. Cruising up and down the river, Bender and Rowland encounter few problems: a missing registration tag or vessel identification numbers that weren't visible. Some were citable offenses, but instead the officers issued friendly warnings. That's the way the marine patrol likes to keep the mood on the water.

Polk County's marine patrol unit has seven certified boat captains and two jet boats that patrol 40 miles of the Willamette River from the Wheatland Ferry near Keizer to south of Buena Vista daily from mid-May through the end of September.

Though the main intent of the patrol is enforcing boating laws, Bender said he uses a different philosophy on the water than he would on the road.

Time on the river is playtime for most people. Bender said he doesn't want to intrude more than what is required to keep people safe.

"Our job is education through enforcement," he said.

Finding that balance has earned the marine patrol the best seasonal program award two years running from the Oregon State Marine Board.

Last season the unit issued 43 citations -- many of them for not having proper or enough life jackets onboard boats.

"They have zero tolerance for people not having enough flotation devices on board," Sheriff Bob Wolfe said.

This year, the focus is the Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Program, which requires all vessels, including manually powered crafts longer than 10 feet, to have permits.

"That's the main citable offense this season," Bender said.

On Aug. 13, however, everyone they encountered was in compliance.

As the sun slipped behind the trees in what was shaping up to be a stunning sunset over a quiet night on the river, Bender and Rowland continued cruising the Willamette.

They stop to chat with people on the river, checking for life jackets or signs that people have had too much to drink. Most of the time the conversation is brief and light, then they move on.

While still keeping an eagle eye on the water, Rowland offers a smile and waves to people as they speed past.

Most return the friendly gesture.

"It's different out here." Rowland said. "It's not all danger."


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