Caution advised with hidden hazards on midstate rivers

Kayakers, canoeist and rafters make their way down the Ocmulgee River at Amerson River Park during an Altamaha Riverkeeper Rally Sunday, May 17, 2015.
Kayakers, canoeist and rafters make their way down the Ocmulgee River at Amerson River Park during an Altamaha Riverkeeper Rally Sunday, May 17, 2015. jvorhees@macon.com

A fun rafting adventure on the Ocmulgee River turned into a nightmare for four college students who got lost in the swamp a few years ago.

They learned safety lessons the hard way by trudging through near neck-deep water when they could not find a place to exit the river after dark.

“(They) would have had a delightful day if they had known Spring Street was the last boat ramp and Gateway Park was the last opportunity to get out,” said Hal Baskin, director of business and real estate for NewTown Macon.

Baskin has been advocating for river safety since NewTown began work on the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail and Amerson River Park.

“Rivers are very unpredictable because of the things we don’t see -- logs, rocks and trees under the water,” Baskin said.

Currents can be tricky to negotiate and may fluctuate due to rapidly changing conditions.

“You can never know what’s going on in that river,” said Georgia Department of Natural Resources Ranger First Class David Fisher. “We usually get calls when the river is up and moving fast. It’s always rising and falling. It’s not something to play with.”

Just a couple months ago, Macon-Bibb County firefighters had to go downriver to rescue others who thought they had a place to exit based on a road they saw on their GPS.

Turns out, the road was underwater at the time.

“Know where you are putting in and know where you are getting out,” Baskin said.

Bibb County Sheriff’s Capt. Eric Walker, who oversees the river walk as part of his territory, also warns people to stay off the river after dark.

He advises boaters and rafters to let someone know where they are going and when they expect to return.

“Take a cellphone with you and make sure it is in a plastic bag,” Walker said.

Floating on a raft or tube can be extremely dangerous for someone who does not know how to swim.

Rocks can be slippery, too, and waders may wind up falling into the water and be swept away.

“Having and wearing a life vest is very important,” Baskin said. “If you aren’t a good swimmer or don’t know how to swim, you need to wear a vest or stay out of the water.”

He encourages people to wear personal flotation devices at all times because it is difficult to put on a vest when someone is struggling in the water.

This Memorial Day weekend, DNR rangers will be out in force on area lakes such as Sinclair, Oconee and Tobesofkee.

They will be checking for flotation devices as they enforce boating regulations.

“It’s a good idea to keep alcohol out of the equation because usually when bad things happen in the water, alcohol is involved,” Fisher said.

A pilot of a boat is allowed to drink alcohol as long as consumption remains under the legal limit of .08, Fisher said.

“If they’re intoxicated while operating a boat, that’s Boating Under the Influence, or BUI, which is essentially the same as driving under the influence,” Fisher said. “If you’re arrested, you’ll go to jail.”

There is no open-container law prohibiting alcoholic beverages in vessels or for those going down the river on rafts or other inflatables.

The exception is the Macon-Bibb County-owned Lake Tobesofkee, which bans all alcohol at the beaches, parks and on the water.

Because the summer season kicks off this weekend and the Amerson River Park reopens May 30 with its canoe launch, recreation area and trails, Baskin urges everyone to brush up on safety skills.

“It’s good for folks to remember as we go into the weekend, the grand reopening of Amerson River Park and the coming summer season.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.