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Floating on troubled waters

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


by: 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. 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.

In years past, the combination of tricky river conditions, hot sun, floating parties and large amounts of alcohol mixed together in 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.”

Near-riot conditions at Carver in 2007 sparked a push for an alcohol ban in Clackamas County parks, which permanently went into effect in 2010. Last August, commissioners took an additional step 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 the 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 the 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,” agreed Thompson. “Are we where we want to be? Absolutely not. But we’re getting closer.”

Slowly tackling issues

Many of those getting ready for the three-hour float on July 19 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.” 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.



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