POLK COUNTY — Participating in aquatic recreation such as floating and kayaking can be dangerous if you’re not prepared for the risks the river brings, which is why Polk County Marine Patrol spends time on the water giving out advice, information and sometimes citations to ensure that everyone stays as safe as possible.
The Polk County Marine Patrol, a division within the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, runs a boat up and down the Willamette throughout the summer months, starting around Memorial Day and ending around Labor Day, sometimes earlier or later depending on the weather.
They aren’t meant to be a negative presence on the water, but serve as a way to educate people on the appropriate protocol for whichever aquatic sport they’re participating in.
“People call us the ‘fun police,’” Deputy Sam Richards, a Polk County Marine Patrol boat captain, said with a laugh. “We’re here to keep everyone safe.”
Keeping people safe can mean anything from stopping a kayaker to make sure they’re staying hydrated to handing out lifejackets and whistles to those who don’t have those items and require it.
Sometimes, the patrol will hand out citations, depending on the severity of the situation.
In a weekend in July, Richards said he handed out 23 citations, which is above the average. Typically, he’ll hand out between four to eight.
Written citations can given for from not having a life jacket on hand, not having an aquatic invasive species prevention permit, required for any aquatic vessel 10 feet and longer, having no fire extinguisher on a jet ski or a boat, or being publicly intoxicated.
Richards said writing a citation versus giving people warnings differs depending on the situation.
There is one circumstance where he will always hand out a citation, no matter what.
“I will cite somebody every single day of the week if they don’t have a life jacket,” Richards said.
The river is unpredictable, even for experienced river users, and wearing a life jacket offers protection from how irregular it can be.
Other ways to keep yourself safe on the water includes wearing bright-colored clothing, and use proper lighting for visibility, and planning your trip and knowing how long it will take with stops for rest and food.
“Understand the perspective of something that’s a lot more powerful than you think,” Richards said.
Another citation that is frequently handed out is the aquatic invasive species citation, said Dean Bender, Emergency Manager for the Emergency Management Office of Polk County.
“People fail to get the permit before going out on their kayak or raft when they are over 10 feet in length. The permits are very easy to get — they cost $5 with a $2 service fee. Any place you can buy a fishing license — you can get a permit, or you can buy them online,” he added.
On Monday evening, Richards stopped a family on a fishing boat, four of whom were on the boat and two were being pulled from behind on a flotation device. After he educated them that the boat only held capacity for five people, and not six, Richards then checked for life jackets for each individual and whether or not the boat had a fire extinguisher.
Because too many people occupied the boat, Richards instructed them to dock the boat on shore.
He did not hand out a citation.
“It’s one of two ways,” he said, “education or citation. Everybody gets a chance.” He said since the family cooperated and were friendly, he decided just to educate.
“I try not to write citations, but I let them know, ‘Hey, I just saved you $1,000,” Richards said.
Citations can range from $30 to thousands.
To find out what equipment you need for the activity you’re participating in, head over to www.oregon.gov/osmb.
For the duration of his Monday shift, which usually runs until dark, Richards talked with kayakers and paddle boarders to see if they carried aquatic invasive species prevention permits and life jackets on them, cited a couple on a jet ski for not having a fire extinguisher, and handed out a few whistles to a pair of kayakers.
Some days on the river aren’t as tame.
Last year in West Salem, there were two drownings, and on July 22, the body of a man who went missing in the Willamette the week prior was found 4 miles downriver from the Wheatland Ferry.
Both Yamhill and Polk counties were called to investigate incident.
Bender’s advice on being safe in the water is simple: Wear a life jacket, he said. And, “Be smart about what you do out there.”