POLK COUNTY — Taking a boat, kayak or flotation device onto the Willamette River throughout the summer months is a popular event for Polk County.
But it’s one that people don’t often take the time to learn more about before heading out onto the water.
“I’ve been with the Sheriff’s Office for 23 years, and the biggest thing we see every year is that people are inadequately prepared for what they’re doing,” said Dean Bender, the emergency manager for the Emergency Management Office for Polk County.
Oregon Laws can be confusing in terms of what you need or don’t need depending on the type of equipment you are using on the water. For example, an inner tube does not require you to have a life vest, but a paddle board does require one.
For clarification on rules and regulations, Bender suggests heading over to the Oregon Marine Board website, where information is available on various topics in regards to water safety.
Not having the proper equipment, like life vests or permits, not knowing the river very well, a lack of proper planning, and not communicating to friends or family where you’ll be are common issues Bender sees while on patrol with the Sheriff’s Office during the summers.
“We encourage people to have fun on the water but people need to know what water they’re on,” Bender said. “For the most part, the Willamette is a lazy river, but there are a few areas that move quickly that will force you into areas you don’t want to go because of the current. If you go into the wrong side you’ll get sucked into a little snag.”
Brent DeMoe, the Family and Community Outreach Director for Polk County and an avid fisherman, has seen firsthand what kinds of situations a lack of preparedness can find people in.
“People don’t understand the Willamette is a nasty river,” DeMoe said.
Last year, he and his wife were fishing on their boat when they came upon a woman who was being sucked underneath a swift undercut whirl pool about a mile downstream from the Buena Vista boat ramp. It’s a section of the river where it makes a 90 degree right turn and creates undercuts that can be several feet deep. She had been kayaking and capsized. The current of the undercut was so strong it pulled the life jacket right off her, as well as her shorts and her shoes.
“It was gut wrenching,” DeMoe said. “She was hanging onto the roots of a tree.”
He said as soon as he and his wife saw what was happening, they leapt into action. DeMoe was able to wrap a rope around the woman, but his boat kept getting sucked under.
Eventually, they were able to pull the woman and DeMoe’s boat out of the undercut. It took the woman 10 minutes to even be able to stand up, she was so exhausted.
“I don’t think there was any way she could have hung on 30 seconds more,” DeMoe said.
Intoxication on the river is another problem both DeMoe and Bender come across frequently.
Drinking on the river is legal, but becoming intoxicated is not.
“Even on a floating raft, you could be cited for being under the influence,” Bender said. “Alcohol will hit you a lot faster in the water and sun.”
Citations aren’t cheap either. Being cited for not having a life vest on your boat will cost up to $260, and since the law requires you to have a vest for each individual on the boat, those citations could rack up quickly.
“A lot of our job is to educate people, but a lot of the time, they’ll be educated by enforcement,” Bender said.
Over a weekend, it is common for him to hand out anywhere from four to 10 citations, with up to 80 throughout the summer.
Drownings are another issue Bender says he sees too often. Last year, he said Polk County dealt with two drownings in West Salem.
“In all the years and all the bodies I’ve pulled out of the water, not one of them had a life jacket on them,” Bender said.
He urges people to wear life vests, and to make sure children 12 years old and younger always have one on while in the water.
Drownings can happen to anyone, not just children.
“Can’t express enough about life jackets,” Bender said. “Be smart about what you do out there.”
DeMoe suggests looking at the river on Google Maps and seeing where it turns and changes so you can be more prepared for when you go out.