Badges, guns and boats

A day on the lake with the Bonner County Sheriff’s Marine Divison

By Cameron Rasmusson

Reader staff

The temperature is a solid 80 degrees come Sunday at City Beach. There’s barely a wisp of cloud in the sky. The water temperature rests at a steady 69.4 degrees—still technically cold water at under 70 degrees, but only just.

Sheriff's deputy Eric Ahrens conducts a boat inspection. Photo by Cameron Rasmusson

Sheriff’s deputy Eric Ahrens conducts a boat inspection. Photo by Cameron Rasmusson

No wonder that City Beach is bustling with bodies, among them boaters eager to get back out on the lake. And they’re not the only ones. When the boats come out of storage, the Bonner County Sheriff’s Marine Division also rouses from retirement for another summer in uniform.

The job brings Bob Descaro and Eric Ahrens to City Beach that afternoon in what is shaping up to be a routine day. It’s their job to keep boaters aware of responsible lake use—a job they say they prefer to tackle through friendly education rather than hard-line enforcement.

“We’re all about making sure people know what they should be doing,” Ahrens said. “They’re out here to have fun, and we want them  to have fun.”

Ahrens and Descaro man the docks of City Beach upon arriving from a lakeside patrol a short time earlier. The purpose of their visit: to conduct boat inspections  verifying that weekend lake fans are packing the right safety equipment. A 24-foot motorboat—a very nice vessel, Ahrens and Descaro agree—backs into the water alongside the dock, and they check for the presence of essentials like fire extinguishers, life vests and flotation devices. The interaction with the boat owners is congenial. They’re happy to demonstrate their full compliance.

“That’s how 90 percent of these [inspections] go,” Ahrens said. “People are usually very cooperative.”

A few moments later, Descaro encounters one of the surly 10 percent. He accuses the marine deputies of harassing him for no good reason. Descaro shrugs it off—there are always moments where they’re seen as joy-kills, and you just have to move past them, he said.

“Who do they think they’re going to call if they run into trouble out there?” Descaro asks.

Sure enough, trouble can come quickly on a lake as big and deep as Lake Pend Oreille. And a boating accident or malfunction can have far greater consequences than the immediate loss of property. Danger to human life is always top concern, but a damaged boat can also leak oils and other contaminants that prove an environmental nightmare requiring serious manpower to clean up.

A pair of kayakers dock at City Beach. Ahrens gives them a once-over and recommends they purchase and display an Idaho Invasive Species Fund sticker. A requirement of for all motorized and non-motorized boats, the sticker program is one line of defense in the fight against invasive species. A true nightmare for ecologists, menaces like eurasian watermilfoil, flowering rush, curly leaf pondweed and quagga and zebra mussels spread like wildfire and can quickly turn a pristine lake or healthy fishery into an environmental wasteland if uncontrolled.

With inspections complete, the deputies head back out onto the lake in their sheriff’s boat, a 32-footer packing dual engines. Despite the power, the boat tops out at only around 35 mph. It’s another major reason boaters need to exercise safety, Ahrens said. Response times can vary wildly depending on how far a boater in distress is from a manned sheriff’s marine unit.

The patrol goes smoothly over the next hour and a half. Still, there’s no telling what calls might come over the computer, Ahrens and Descaro said. Last week, for instance, the sheriff’s marine division was called alongside Sagle and Sandpoint firefighters to address an attempted suicide incident.

Perhaps the wildest experience in recent memory for both of them was the violent windstorm last summer. The incident was an explosion of natural fury on both land and water. As the storm threat loomed, emergency personnel frantically worked to empty the lake of boats. And when the storm finally died down, the destruction was incredible, Ahrens said. Boats all along Pend Oreille were sinking or cast adrift.

Under gentler circumstances, boaters still need to be aware of risks, they added. For instance, anyone spending significant time in water need to take measures to avoid hypothermia. Any water under 70 degrees is considered cold and can advance hypothermia faster than many believe possible. Another danger is the exhaust that billows from the back of most motorboats. Those sitting in the back near the exhaust for prolonged periods of time can gradually contract carbon monoxide poisoning, which is fatal at high levels.

As a largely seasonal branch of the sheriff’s office, the marine division is made up of deputies with a wide variety of backgrounds. Most are retired police officers, but backgrounds range from former smoke-jumpers to accountants to firefighters.

“We get to tease the firemen,” Ahrens said. “We tell them their dreams are coming true—they finally get to be cops.”

It’s ideal work for public service retirees who still want to stay involved, Ahrens said. And while the job can sometimes throw crazy circumstances their way, it’s tough to beat a day on the lake, even if you’re wearing a uniform instead of swim trunks.

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