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Landers: Rock Lake rescue provides vital lesson

Two Spokane anglers at Rock Lake last week pulled in a couple of big ones they can’t get out of their minds.

“We saved two lives,” David Shields said. “I feel good about that, but more people need to know how easy it would have been for those two young guys to die.”

Shields and fishing buddy Don Martin are well acquainted with the 7-mile-long lake in Whitman County.

“I grew up in Sprague, and I fish those lakes a lot, yet I’m always running a little scared when I’m boating,” Shields said. “I mean that in a good way.”

Rock Lake is notorious for basalt outcroppings and pillars hidden just under the water surface in several spots. One hazard is almost 200 yards out from shore.

The uninhabited lake is especially prone to winds that can whip up boat-swamping waves.

Miles of the lake are lined by vertical basalt cliffs with no walkable shoreline.

Two men in their early 20s motored up the lake early in the day past where Shields and Martin were fishing. Shields noticed the boat was overloaded with only a couple inches of freeboard. The water temperature was 36 degrees.

“If a wind comes up,” Shields told his friend, “they’re gone.”

Later, on their way back downlake, the two young men had their little outboard at nearly full throttle as they rounded a point. They were about 40 yards offshore halfway down the lake just north of Johnson’s Landing.

“We learned it was their first time on the lake; the first time out in a new little aluminum boat,” Shields said.

“I was trolling at Miller Bay on the other side of the lake when we heard screaming. I looked through binoculars and all I could see was debris on the water.”

“If there had been any wind, we wouldn’t have seen anything.”

Apparently the outboard’s lower unit had hit a rock outcropping that extended out from shore about 2 feet underwater.

The boat turned abruptly and flipped. With no flotation installed, it quickly sank in more than 300 feet of water.

“They didn’t have their life preservers on, but one was able to grab two flotation cushions and the other gathered the two life jackets,” Shields said. “I think that saved their lives. We headed right over, but we were a ways off.”

By the time the only other boat around got there, the young men had kicked their way to a small rock outcropping.

“They would have had to swim another 200 yards around giant rocks to where they could get on shore near Johnson’s Landing,” Shields said. “I don’t think they could have made it.

“They were already suffering from hypothermia. They had trouble breathing. They couldn’t talk.

“We got them into our boat, but it was hard to get their wet clothes off. They both were cramped up in the fetal position on the floor.

“They were throwing up water. They just barely made it.”

Shields and Martin gave them some of the clothes they were wearing, fed them warm coffee and boated back more than 3 miles to the launch.

“I remember being struck by how heavy their insulated overalls were,” Shields said. “There must have been 60 pounds of wet gear on the bottom of our boat.”

At the boat launch, the young men – Jacob and Gary – were very appreciative. Shields and Martin followed them home to make sure they were OK and to get their clothes back.

“When one of them changed into a T-shirt and came out of the room, I was struck by how ripped he was,” Shields said. “It was obvious he worked out and was really fit.

“It was quite a contrast to how puny and pathetic he looked a little earlier curled up on the bottom of my boat.”

Shields knows the bad spots on Rock Lake after years of exploring.

“You’re pretty safe going right up the middle,” he said. “But if you’re closer to shore, 1 mile per hour is too fast if you don’t know where you are.”

“Just the other day, I told Don to look at the sonar, which is mounted at the b of the boat. It said 250 feet. Up at the bow, I poked my rod into the water to my second guide and hit a rock pillar.”

The Coast Guard has a role in navigation buoys on main navigable waters such as the Columbia River.

The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission has authority to mark waterways, but officials say they must be judicious in what they take on.

Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers explained why hazards aren’t marked on the region’s lakes.

“There are hundreds of lakes in this region and there’s no way the state could mark every hazard as the water levels rise and fall,” he said.

“(Marking hazards) would set up the state to incur some liability if someone were to hit a rock where a sign had blown down or a buoy came loose or a blinking light had burned out.

“It’s a boater’s responsibility to have the proper equipment for going out on these lakes – life jackets, horns, lights and so on – and to travel with caution.”

Shields said he’s exploring the possibility of a map board or something to raise awareness.

“I can’t be too critical of those two young guys we rescued,” he said. “I’m in my 50s and they remind me of when I was that age: young and stupid.

“They got a second chance, but the next clueless boaters out there might not.”

Tags: outdoors