Clackamas County tries to calm the party atmosphere on area rivers, beaches

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO SHASTA KEARNS MOORE - Clackamas County Marine Services Officer Abigail Hunt helps ensure floater safety on the popular Clackamas River float from Barton to Carver Parks. Two people have drowned near this location in the past five years. On any given summer Sunday, the Clackamas River from Barton to Carver parks is packed with boats, rafts, inner tubes, pool toys, air mattresses and, well, just about anything that floats.

But in years past, the combination of tricky river conditions, hot sun, floating parties and large amounts of alcohol have mixed together to create a dangerous cocktail.

“It became kind of a mess,” says Forest and Parks Department Manager Rick Gruen. “What became kind of troubling was the number of marine rescues the marine patrol was doing.”

Scott Stafford, the lead instructor for American Medical Response’s River Rescue program, says alcohol and the rivers don’t mix.

“The physiological features (of alcohol) — slow response and lack of coordination — greatly impairs you in the water,” Stafford says.

According to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 percent of accidents on the water are alcohol-related, Stafford says, adding that 85 percent of drownings are preventable. AMR advises anyone on or even near the water to be wearing a personal flotation device.

“Especially with our rivers, with how cold and fast they move, they still have a lot of dangerous features to them,” Stafford says.

Near-riot conditions at Carver in 2007 sparked a push for an alcohol ban in Clackamas County parks. That ban permanently went into effect in 2010, and last August, commissioners took the additional step of giving law enforcement the authority to look inside coolers and bags.

Clackamas County Sgt. Nate Thompson says he likens the approach to bag searches at the Moda Center — you don’t have to participate, but if you don’t, you’ll be asked to leave. Thompson says the extra search authority has helped keep intoxication and litter levels down, but he knows people are still concealing their booze.

“All of a sudden, people are bringing a lot of orange juice on the rivers,” he says with a laugh.

Because the new law’s authority only applies to county parks and not the river water or surrounding areas, officers say they have even seen people trying to lower 24-packs of beer from bridges, or tumbling down steep, unmanaged riparian trails.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, they are determined,” Thompson says.

But many officers said that conditions are much calmer this year.

“It’s not as dangerous for us anymore,” says Parks Deputy Mike Belcher, who has patrolled the area for 10 years.

“It has made a difference,” Thompson agrees. “Are we where we want to be? Absolutely not. But we’re getting closer.”

Many of those getting ready for a recent three-hour float on the river say they were more concerned with litter than alcohol. Andres Gomez of Portland was surprised to learn of the alcohol ban and says it takes some of the fun out of the activity.

“I have never felt unsafe,” Gomez says. “People are just trying to have a good time.”

David Ford of Milwaukie shrugged about the alcohol ban. “Maybe it’s working,” he says. But, he adds: “There’s still lots of litter.”

“It’s a littering issue,” agrees Lisa Sellers of Canby. “People can drink and be responsible about it.”

Sellers laughed about an eddy near Carver that she called a “flip-flop graveyard,” because of the large amounts of shoes, bottles and other trash that collects there.

Marine Patrol Sgt. Steve Thoroughman, who spearheaded the effort to ban alcohol in the parks, knows that eddy as Kipplings Rock. Thoroughman spends much of his shift hauling people out of the whirlpool with a motor boat. Two people have drowned there in the last five years.

The next issue several officers want to tackle is the lifejacket loophole. People on standard watercraft are required to at least carry them, but those on more dangerous pool toys are exempt, likely because legislators never expected people would take them down a river with Class I and II rapids.

“We’re slowly tackling this,” Thompson says.

County parks, rivers get a clean sweep

In conjunction with the enhanced enforcement of an alcohol ban, Clackamas County Parks have begun a multi-year effort to clean up and improve safety along the heavily used Barton-to-Carver-parks river float.

The Clackamas River Enforcement and Ecology Workgroup’s 2014 “Our River” plan was approved in April and lists several priorities, from a life-jacket loaner program to improved litter strategies.

“It seems to be going good,” says Rick Gruen, parks department manager.

The annual Down the River Clean-Up, led by the Clackamas River Basin Council ( and the Stash the Trash red bag campaign, is being enhanced with six trash barrels that Pacific Jetboater Association members maintain along the route and a new Dumpster at Carver Boat Ramp.

A new kiosk at Barton Park is expected to be finished this week. Volunteers will staff it most weekend days, greeting floaters and checking out life jackets and whistles.

The kiosk will eventually have a map of the river with known hazard spots, new trash stations, an outhouse and river miles with float times, along with warnings about when the parks close so that people can plan to get to their vehicles before they are towed.

The kiosk will also feature some of the new messages that are scheduled to go up on signs throughout the parks this week. Replacing signs that simply state park rules, these new signs will also have information about river health and safety, Gruen says.

“We thought that there needs to be less regulatory and more positive messaging signs,” he says.

More positive, customer-service-oriented messaging seems to be a theme, as Gruen also hired a temporary “greeter” at the Carver Boat Ramp to nicely direct people toward the self-pay parking meter.

The new system and positive messaging was put to the test July 12, when officials had to close the park for about an hour and a half because they were past capacity.

“It was sort of a perfect storm,” says Gruen. The campsites were full, all seven of the reserve areas were booked and temperatures reached the mid-90s, inspiring people to head to the river. Parks rangers and sheriff’s deputies had to turn people away, but Gruen says that with a large reader board in place and a turn-around spot designated, it went as well as could be expected.

“While people might have been frustrated, it was managed fairly positively,” he says.


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