Boating is part of the Inland Northwest’s culture. In Kootenai County, there’s one registered boat for every seven residents. The county’s lakes and rivers are a draw for Washington boaters, too. Sgt. Matt Street oversees the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department’s marine program, whose 12 seasonal deputies patrol 18 lakes and 56 miles of navigable river. The Memorial Day weekend kicks off their busy season.
Q.Give me an idea of how busy the marine deputies are.
A.Last year, we did just under 3,500 boating safety inspections. We check for all of the requirements – things like life jackets, whistles, fire extinguishers and flame arresters. Our main goal is to ensure boating safety. Unfortunately, Kootenai County is the leader in the state in OUI arrests – that’s operating under the influence. There are lots of bars and restaurants on the lake. It’s an environment that encourages drinking. We’re the leader in the state in boating accidents as well.
Q.How could the number of boating accidents be reduced?
A.Many of the boating fatalities occur because of lack of education. About four years ago, two teenage boys were out in Hayden Lake in a canoe in May. They were using a broom for a paddle, they didn’t have life jackets and the water was cold. One of them drowned when the canoe capsized. Last year, a teenage girl on a personal watercraft came up on another personal watercraft. She took her hand off the throttle and lost the ability to steer. When they collided, she was thrown, hit her head and died. These are pretty simple, avoidable things. People get caught up in the recreational aspect of boating. They lose sight of safety.
Q.Is any kind of boating education required?
A.Idaho is one of six or eight states that doesn’t have mandatory boater safety classes. What we find is that most boaters, if they can write the monthly payment, they’ll be out there boating. And they really don’t have the knowledge they need to boat safely. We offer a six-hour course to the public, free of charge, which we encourage people to take. We teach 75 to 125 students per year.
Q.What’s the busiest section of water?
A.The Spokane River. There’s a tremendous amount of traffic on a narrow body of water. It’s more congested than being out on the open lake. When you have five boats coming upriver and five boats going downriver and Jet Skis zipping in between all of them, you have to be aware of what’s going on.
Q.Have you ever had a close call on the water?
A.Yes. A friend and I were duck hunting on Blue Lake. We overloaded the boat, and it was swamped. This happened in November. We were both wearing life jackets, but it was 400 feet to shore and the dog was trying to jump on us. … I tell people that story on a regular basis. It can go from a great day to a bad day really quick.