Sheriff's boat on Wallowa Lake

Wallowa County sheriff’s deputy Marc Christman counsels a stand-up paddle boarder on safety and also the best way around the EPA’s barrel recovery work on Wallowa Lake in May, 2019.

The Wallowa County Sheriff’s marine patrol bears the onerous responsibility of keeping locals and visitors alike safe on the water. Their patrol area includes the usually placid waters of Wallowa Lake, the meandering course of the Grande Ronde River and 80 miles of the sometimes treacherous, always challenging Snake River and its big rapids where it runs through Hells Canyon.

For the past eight years, the patrol has used a 19-foot North River jet boat provided to them by the Oregon State Marine Board, who owns the craft, and who provides boats to most law enforcement that patrols any of Oregon’s waterways. Powered by a single 6-liter Chevy marine engine, it’s got plenty of power, said Chief Deputy Fred Steen. Steen works as one of four deputies on the county’s marine patrol. And he, and the rest of his crew — deputies Lem McBurney, Marc Christman, and Kyle Hacker — would really like the Marine Board to provide them with a slightly bigger, dual-engined boat.

“The boat we have is pretty light and so it gets up on plane pretty quickly,” Steen said. “But when you are out on that 80 miles of the Snake River especially, its much better if you have a second power plant in case you suck up junk into your screen, you lose the single jet engine, and you have no control while you are drifting down into the rapids.” The boat carries an auxiliary outboard engine which they have used on several memorable occasions. But that engine isn’t really big enough to power their boat through big water should their engine fail above a major rapids.

Wallowa County shares patrol duties on the Snake with the U.S. Forest Service and State Police. It’s often difficult to coordinate schedules and fully cover the river.

“It’s remote and people sometimes feel free to do just whatever the heck they want down there,” Steen said. “So there have been fatalities that we have dealt with. About three years ago we had a jet boat flip in Big Sheep rapids. Two men survived, but there was one fatality.”

Wallowa County was called in to assist in what was first deemed a rescue, and finally a recovery. “I spent 27 days down there on the river,” Sheriff Steve Rogers said. “Hells Canyon Adventures let us use their big boat because we were in very rough water much of the time. It had three jet engines. You could take it anywhere in the river, put in any rapids, and just hold it in place with those engines.” Rogers paid for the fuel for the boat. Idaho Power chipped in food and shelter.

Ultimately they recovered the body of the jet boater—a prison guard who lived in Ontario, Oregon. His boat washed ashore somewhat later. “It looked like a crushed Coors can,” Rogers said.

“Generally, our boat is good on the lake and smaller rivers that aren’t rough and don’t have lots of rapids, like the Grande Ronde,” Steen said. “We have to be a little careful on the Snake River because the boat we have now is not a very wide-beamed long bowed boat. We just have to pick our routes more carefully when we go upriver. There are some places and some flows that we just can’t navigate. It would be nice to have a little bit larger, a little longer boat. Even a couple more feet would help us greatly.”

Both Steen and Rogers have asked for a slightly bigger boat for years. But their requests have fallen on deaf ears, as have their invitations to take the Marine Board members and administrators on an exciting ride through Hells Canyon on a 19-foot, single-engined jet boat.

“I’ve been trying to achieve that for years. But for some reason I’ve just not been able to get it done,” Steen said. “Maybe they don’t want us to have a bigger boat. I don’t know what the reason is. They will give you a reason, but their reasons don’t wash out. It’s been an issue and an irritant with us.”

Most likely, Steen noted, Wallowa County is simply too far away. It’s out of sight, out of mind. The needs of a rural county that patrols the roughest part of a river that flows through the deepest canyon in North America, using a light-weight, single engine watercraft, just doesn’t seem important.

And it’s not just on the Snake River that a slightly bigger boat would help.

“Last year we were on the Grande Ronde looking for an escaped person out of Union County,” Steen said. “We damaged our boat, and got it repaired mostly on the county’s insurance. That boat was pretty adequate on the Grande Ronde, but even there, if we had a couple more feet on the boat it would be a heck of a lot safer for us.”

When the sheriff’s patrol is not plying the Snake or the Grande Ronde, they are most likely to be found on Wallowa Lake, where they spend a lot more time than on the Snake.

“This is a destination place in the summer time, Steen said. “People come here to relax and we try to keep that in mind. But safety is number one.”

On the lake, the marine patrol checks for safety equipment including life vests, removes the county’s docks from the lake in the fall and returns them to the water in the spring, and occasionally remove debris floating on the lake (“But we don’t actually clean the lake,” Steen was quick to clarify.) They look for people running too fast in no wake zones, intoxicated people, and generally look out for public safety. While the EPA was working on removing barrels from the lake, the sheriff’s patrol ensured that boaters, kayakers, and paddle-boarders steered clear of the work areas. Patrolling the lake during Shake the Lake Fireworks is especially important. They also check boats for licenses, and for invasive species .“We don’t need zebra mussels in Wallowa Lake,” Steen said. “That would be a nasty deal.”

The Oregon State Marine Board helps support all this work, returning about $35,000 per year for patrol of Hells Canyon, the Grande Ronde, and Wallowa Lake. Now if only they would come up with that slightly bigger boat…..

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