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Search scaled back at Lake Billy Chinook

Father, son die in skiing accident

by: Photo by Holly M. Gill - Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins, left, confers with a search team from Klamath County – Capt. Conrad Caillouette, Mike Parsons and Jani Arnold – on Friday, after the sonar equipment on the front of the 23-foot search vessel was damaged by an underwater cable in the slalom ski course at Lake Billy Chinook. The equipment damaged by the cable was repaired, and the team resumed their search on Saturday,  using sonar to map the area of the lake where Gene Harris, 73, of Madras, was believed to have gone into the water on Thursday to rescue his son Mark Harris, 37. Both died in the incident, but Mark Harris’ body was recovered at the scene, while Gene Harris’ body had not yet been located by Tuesday afternoon.

A tragic accident claimed the lives of a Madras man and his son on Sept. 6, when the two, Eugene "Gene" Harris, 73, and Mark Harris, 37, took a break from farming to go waterskiing at Lake Billy Chinook.
   According to Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins, Gene Harris was driving an 18-foot ski boat, and his son was using a new slalom ski on the Crooked River branch of the lake, north of the first bridge, on Thursday morning.
   "There were no witnesses to what originally happened," said Adkins. "We know that (Mark) was skiing the slalom course down there and something happened where he apparently went into the water."
   Mark Harris, who was wearing a mini-wetsuit, suffered injuries to the back of his head and his leg. Gene Harris, who authorities believe was not wearing a life jacket, entered the water to rescue his son.
   A contractor on his way to Three Rivers spotted the empty boat, said Detective Starla Green. "He pulled over and saw a person flailing in the water -- attempting to swim toward the person who was face down," she said.
   Just then, the contractor shifted his gaze to another boat approaching from the south, but "by the time he refocused over there," said Green, pointing from the same pullout on the east side of the lake, "he (Gene) was gone."
   The man called 911 to report the incident at 10:44 a.m.
   "We don't know what happened," said Adkins. "Either Mark got hit by the ski and that caused the laceration, or when he turned around, the boat hit him."
   Although waterskiing regulations generally require a spotter in addition to the boat driver, Adkins said, "One driver, one skier is legal if you're practicing for an event."
   Boaters and skiers are not required to wear life jackets, but they must be available in the boat.
   Shortly after the accident on Thursday, the Sheriff's Office marine patrol recovered the body of Mark Harris -- still connected to the slalom ski -- but partially submerged.
   When divers from the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office and other searchers failed to locate Gene Harris' body on Thursday, Adkins called in the Klamath County Dive Rescue Team, from Klamath Falls.
   The three-person team set out on Friday in a 23-foot Seaswirl Striper, and planned to use sonar to search the lake, but ran into a problem when the cable to their sonar equipment was damaged by an underwater cable on the slalom ski course.
   After repairs, the team resumed its search on Saturday, but was unable to locate the missing man.
   The side-scan sonar "tow fish" floats about six feet off the bottom of the lake -- which drops precipitously from about 90 feet to 194 feet at that location -- to obtain and map underwater images of that area of the lake.
   Volunteer Jani Arnold, a registered nurse and computer analyst at Sky Lakes Medical Center, was part of the team from Klamath Falls which hoped to retrieve Harris' body.
   "I think, for family members, it's closure," she said.
   On Saturday night, Adkins suspended the sonar search, which wasn't working because of the steep underwater terrain.
   "Every day, my boat patrol is continuing a periodic surface search," he said. "I'll probably continue that daily for the next six to 10 days."
   Wednesday, a diver will begin to search the west side shore area. "We'll re-evaluate after we hear what he has to say," said Adkins on Tuesday.
   Farm community rallies
   A longtime resident of Madras, Gene Harris had farmed on Agency Plains for decades, before retiring in recent years and helping out his sons, Jason and Mark, with their farms.
   On Monday, family and friends of the Harrises were attending to Mark Harris' farm.
   "I bet I've had 15 phone calls or better from growers in the community wanting to help," said Greg Williams, a family friend, who had worked with the Harrises for 17 years as a consultant for Central Oregon Seed.
   "Phil Fine came in that first night and took over irrigation," he said, adding that Ryan Boyle and Evan Thomas had both been out to do some spraying.
   Williams said Mark Harris, who farmed about 250 acres of carrot and grass seed on his own, had "just finished cutting his first carrot field and was getting ready to combine the next day."
   "He was a good guy -- quiet and a hardworker," said Williams, who was working at the farm with Harris family friend Dan Carlson on Monday. "He would sneak away and go waterskiing whenever he got caught up."
   Gene Harris, who rented out his own farm, was an excellent farmer, who "had a different way of doing things," according to Williams.
   "I always liked Gene," he said. "I enjoyed his wisdom."
   A memorial service for Gene and Mark Harris will be held Saturday, Sept. 15, at 1 p.m., at Madras High School. (See obituaries on page 19.)