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County Crackdown: Drinking on the Ottertail

An Ottertail River tuber takes a drink of whiskey before embarking on his ride down the river in this 2009 photo. Officials don’t have a problem with legal drinking (though glass bottles are banned) but are cracking down on underage drinking on the river. FILE PHOTO/RECORD

Tubing the Ottertail River has always been a popular summer tradition in the lakes area.

And part of that tradition has often included enjoying a few “adult” beverages along the way, not to mention stopping to party at two or three favorite gathering spots during the trip.

But tubers beware: The Becker County Sheriff’s Department will be cracking down on out-of-control drinking and partying by tubers along the river route this summer, with a particular emphasis on controlling underage alcohol consumption.

“We’re working closely with the two tubing companies out there,” said Sheriff Kelly Shannon, noting that the owners of both businesses are cooperating with law enforcement’s efforts to curb underage drinkers.

“They realize what the concern is, because they see it out there too,” he said. “They see its costs (medical and safety issues), and they’re concerned too.”

“I know it’s going to upset a lot of people, but it (teenage drinking) needs to be addressed,” said Cathy Pihlaja, owner of Charlie’s Ottertail Tubing. “It’s gotten out of hand.”

She said that Charlie’s would be following the sheriff’s department recommendations to use different colored wristbands to identify tubers who are of legal drinking age, and those who are not.

Tubers will be asked to produce proof of identification before setting off on the river, at which time they will be issued wristbands of the appropriate color.

“We will be carding people,” Pihlaja said.

Roger Klemm of K & K Tubing, however, said that he wasn’t so sure the wristband system was the best way to handle the issue, and hadn’t decided yet whether he would be using it or not.

“Hopefully by Monday we should have an answer on that,” he said Thursday, noting that he had a few questions that needed answering before he agreed to use the wristbands.

The reason why he had concerns with the wristband system, Klemm said, is that once people set off down the river, he has no control over whether they choose to remove the wristbands, or exchange them with others in their party.

“When they come off the bottom of the river at the end of the trip, what happens if they don’t have a wristband?” Klemm asked. “Are we going to be held liable for that?”

Klemm would prefer to card only those who actually bring a cooler of alcoholic beverages with them, and make that person responsible for ensuring that the others in their party were not drinking if they were underage.

People who bring coolers with them need to produce identification anyway, because they are asked to count the number of cans and plastic bottles they have with them (glass bottles are not allowed) and produce the same number of containers — full or empty — at the end of the river trip as they had at the beginning.

In order to ensure this, the person in charge of the cooler is asked to leave a deposit — if the number of cans and bottles doesn’t add up at the end of the trip, they lose that deposit.

This policy was introduced several years ago in order to curb littering along the river. A county ordinance was enacted to enforce the new policy.

Klemm sees it as unnecessary to ask everyone to produce identification, just those who actually bring the alcohol with them. But while he has some concerns about the wristband system, Klemm also noted that he wasn’t against using it; he just wanted to have his questions answered before he agreed to it.

“We’re trying to iron this out, to be on the same page as law enforcement,” he said.

Shannon said that the wristband system was entirely voluntary on the tubing companies’ behalf.

“We’re not going to force them,” he said. “We’re asking them to do it.”

‘A balancing act’

Shannon also noted that it is not his department’s intent to stop tubers from enjoying their time on the river.

“We want people to have a good time,” he said. “But we don’t want them getting hurt. It’s a balancing act.”

Excessive drinking can lead to medical issues, particularly among teens who have not experienced the effects of alcohol before, and don’t know their own physical limitations, Shannon noted.

He said this is a major reason why his department will have a greater presence on the river this year.

“We will have a stronger law enforcement presence out there, for sure,” Shannon said. “We want a good, safe atmosphere — and the tubing businesses agree with that.

“If we see a minor drinking, they will get a ticket … we will be enforcing the statute for minor consumption.”

Shannon said that officers would also be patrolling near the so-called “party spots” along the river, and asking any crowds that develop to disburse and move on — “or they could possibly be cited for unlawful assembly.”

Any fights that break out will also be dealt with accordingly, Shannon said.

And of course, there will also be an increased law enforcement presence on the roads near the tubing route, to catch people who are driving under the influence.

“We realize that it’s a huge amount of people involved, and we’re going to have a lot of challenges with enforcing (the law), but there’s no question we need to address these issues,” he added.

“We’re hoping these recommendations will help regulate the misuse of alcohol along the river.”

Pihlaja, for one, is glad to see the changes.

“I think it’s something that was needed,” she said. “Underage drinking is underage drinking. You can’t go to a bar or the beach or WE Fest and drink if you’re underage, it’s against the law. So what makes people think they can come here (to the river) and do it?

“Another issue is, where are they getting the alcohol? They’re not getting it from us.”

Both Pihlaja and Klemm noted that they do not sell any alcohol — anyone who wants to have it on the river has to bring it themselves.

For that reason, Klemm feels that it’s the person bringing the alcohol to the river who should be responsible for any issues that occur from its use.

Emergency concerns

Another cause for concern that needs to be addressed as soon as possible, Shannon said, is the lack of ability to track where tubers are on the river when safety and medical issues arise.

“Last year we had some medicals (emergency calls for medical issues) out there, and were unable to find where they were,” he said.

In one particular instance, officers had to take a boat out onto the river, with medical staff aboard, in order to find a woman who was having a suspected heart attack.

Along the way to finding the woman, they also picked up a man who was experiencing similar issues.

“It probably took us over an hour to find the right person,” said Shannon, adding that the person who called the emergency in to dispatch on their cell phone had been unable to provide a clear description of where they were.

“That’s totally unacceptable,” he added.

A possible solution was proposed by one of the tubing companies that may actually be implemented in the near future, Shannon said.

“They came up with the idea of using signs to mark locations along the river,” he said. “The signs would be placed every quarter mile, so that when someone calls 911 with their cell phone they can identify where they are.”

Of course, while all of these changes might help to curb underage drinking, and improve safety conditions along the river, they won’t eliminate the problems altogether.

“You’re always going to have fights — anywhere you have alcohol and sunshine and half naked men and women, you’re going to have issues,” said Pihlaja.

“We just want to have a good, safe atmosphere out there,” Shannon said — so those issues don’t get out of hand. “We don’t want anyone getting hurt. It’s just that simple.”

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454