Eyes and ears of the river

As summer heats up and folks take to the river to cool off and have fun, the Polk County Marine Patrol is busier that ever. Deputy Rod Bartholomew inspects a boater's operating permit.

POLK COUNTY -- A half-dozen young swimmers splash about near the landing at Wallace Marine Park, seeking respite from the Friday afternoon heat, as the Polk County Marine Patrol boat makes its way toward the docks.

The 21-foot North River glides up to the shore and comes to a halt in the shallows. Boat Captain John Kincaid and Deputy Rod Bartholomew climb down and come ashore.

The two survey the river beneath the Marion Street Bridge, watching jet-powered crafts and motorboats skittering along the water's surface, before they climb onto the docks. That few minutes of observation reveals a number of violations being committed.

One boat is ignoring the buoys marking the 5-mph speed limit, Kincaid said.

Bartholomew notices a jet craft missing a registration decal on its starboard side. And all of the vehicles on the water seem to be running too close together.

Nothing too major, though, Bartholomew notes while performing a safety inspection on Keizer resident Jason Monier's boat. Bartholomew asks Monier to produce life jackets, a skier-down flag, and other equipment.

"I'm not doing this to give you a citation," Bartholomew tells Monier as he runs through his checklist. He motions down the dock.

"The main reason I'm talking to your boat is you're too close to the PWC (personal water craft) in front of you."

"Hey, that's fine," Monier says. "You're just doing your job."

Kincaid and Bartholomew finish up on the dock about a quarter to seven, pile into their boat, then head up the river toward Keizer. They notice a ski boat idling downstream from the bridge. A passenger on the craft suddenly brandishes a red flag.

"They didn't put that up until they saw us," Bartholomew says with a grin. People tend to be a bit more cognizant of their actions on the river when officers are present, Kincaid agrees.

But interupting fun on the water is hardly what the marine patrol is about.

An average day for the Polk unit is spent performing boat inspections, checking for life jackets and making sure people are obeying proper boating etiquette on the water.

"There are a lot of good people out here who just want to have a good time," Kincaid says. "We're not out here to harass them.

"Our main function out here is to educate the public."

The county's marine patrol unit shares responsibility for the Willamette River with Marion County.

From May to September, Polk officials monitor a 40-mile stretch of the river between the Wheatland Ferry south of Keizer to Buena Vista Ferry near Independence. The marine patrol acts on an emergency basis during remaining months.

The sheriff's office receives about 95 percent of the $70,000 it takes to fund the marine patrol from the Oregon State Marine Board. The county provides the balance.

The unit is comprised of eight sheriff's office deputies -- all certified as boat captains. All of the agency's reserve deputies are also involved in the program.

The county currently uses two 20-foot jet sleds, and has in recent years revamped the unit by making equipment improvements.

That focus has earned the county seasonal Program of the Year accolades from the marine board twice since 2001.

Dean Bender, the county's public information officer, has served as a boat captain for the past decade. A childhood spent on the water in the San Francisco Bay Area originally drew him to the position, he said.

"I think a lot of people think we have an easy job," he said. "That we're just out there getting a suntan."

That's a misconception. There is much to look for in the area within the agency's jurisdiction. Almost 18,500 boaters used the 40-mile stretch last year, many of them originating from Wallace Marine and Riverview parks, according to marine board officials.

All boaters must pass a mandatory boater education course in order to operate a vehicle on the water, but Kincaid says he's not surprised how many regulations still go routinely ignored.

Marine patrol officials handed out 73 citations last year, most for not carrying boater education cards. Many water craft operators don't keep a safe distance between one another on the river. The current hot-button issue is damage to private and public docks caused by wakes from ski boats and wakeboarders.

The biggest problem is a long-standing one: not wearing a life jacket. That's a $237 fine, Kincaid said.

"You'd be surprised how many people are without them," he said. "Most of the time, they'll just tell you they forgot."

Which is suicide, Bartholomew is quick to add. The marine patrol has to assist in what is the most difficult part of the job for all deputies -- body recovery of drowning victims

"We've never pulled a body out yet that actually had a life jacket on," he said. "In all the successful rescues, they're wearing them."

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