After fatal tubing accidents on Red Lake River, safety measures taken at popular summer spot
RED LAKE FALLS, Minn. -- On hot Saturdays, as many as 1,500 visitors float down a four-mile stretch of the Red Lake River on this town's outskirts, in effect doubling its population.
The dominant tubing demographic is young adult. The dominant tubing accessory is a cooler of beer. Their inner tubes tied together with rope, they form party flotillas.
However, tragedy has tainted the fun. In the past 10 years, five drowning deaths have been "associated with" tubing, Red Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Brad Johnson. Four of the five deaths were alcohol-related.
"All four involved excessive alcohol use," Johnson said. "Water and alcohol is a dangerous mix.
"Tubing in itself is risky. Add alcohol, poor judgments and lack of knowledge and it's more risky."
Three of the five deaths came last year, prompting a fall meeting of officials of the city, county and sheriff's department, family members of drowning victims and the owners of Voyageur's View, the private tubing outfitter.
The meeting resulted in several safety measures being put in place this year.
"Out of the negatives, we got some positives," Johnson said.
Jet Ski provides access
The most visible and dramatic change is a Jet Ski for patrolling the river. Previously, law enforcement patrolled with a boat, which didn't provide consistent accessibility because of its size and fluctuating water levels.
"It's a tool where we can get close to the tubers," Johnson said.
Patrolling is always done on weekends and occasionally on weekdays. "We're looking for underage drinkers, overly intoxicated people, people needing help and debris blocking the waterway," Johnson said.
Despite the three deaths in 2010, conduct has improved recently, he said. "Our number of arrests is lower," Johnson said. "We have fewer minors drinking and more designated drivers.
"It started to come around last year."
Because inner tubes are not considered watercraft, enforcement options are limited. Life preservers aren't required. And Minnesota doesn't have a "public intoxication" law. If tubers are unruly, the arrest options are for unlawful assembly or disorderly conduct.
Outfitter also makes moves
Johnson has no complaint with the owners of Voyageur's View, a second-generation business that also operates a campground on the site. Voyageur's provides the tubes and transportation to the launch point, about a half-mile from its headquarters.
"The family has been exceptional to deal with over the years," Johnson said. "Every year, they run their business better. They've made many changes. They learn from their mistakes and are receptive to our input."
Dick Brumwell started the tubing operation 27 years ago. For the last three years, the operators have been three adult children, including daughter Stephanie Lolich.
Voyagueur's contributed to buying the Jet Ski and have made changes in their operation with safety in mind. One change, to slow alcohol consumption, was to ban open containers in the half-mile bus ride to the launch point. Coolers must now be placed in a walled-off area in the rear of the bus. Also, coolers are not rented to anyone under age 21. Security workers, wearing neon orange vests, carry a high profile.
They also bought a river raft and more modern life jackets to encourage their use. They regularly monitor Army Corps of Engineers river gauges online because higher water means a faster current.
When heavy rains created a rapid rise, Voyageur's shut down tubing for four days before the Fourth of July weekend. Temporary shutdowns are not new this summer, Lolich said.
The bus driver delivers a speech that outlines the rules -- such as a $5 fine for every empty container that doesn't come back - and provides warnings -- don't leave your tube.
"About 10 years ago, we grew so quickly that we had a tough time adjusting," Lolich said. "It was hard to control so many people."
So, they cut the number of available campsites in half, from 300 to about 150. Instead of being occasionally overwhelmed such as the Canadian and U.S. independence holiday weekends, customers are more evenly spread over the summer.
Advice from tubing veterans
For the 26th consecutive year, a group of friends from Bemidji spent the second weekend of July camping and tubing at Voyageur's. With their ages ranging from 52 to 67, they've slowed a little -- splashing fellow floaters rather than launching water balloons at them.
Charles Worms wears a rubber Conehead mask, which draws full-throated hoots from the twenty-somethings on the water. Howard Harder, who his friends claim is the last person on earth who would have a real ponytail, wears a cap with a fake white-haired ponytail coming out the back. And Gary Lewis has a camper full of t-shirts bearing double-entendres.
They have the same variety of fun as 25 years ago -- friends sharing a ritual and tradition with floating tubes, sunshine and a full cooler.
"You have to be responsible for yourself," Lewis said. "It doesn't feel unsafe out there to me. I think the people here have gone beyond the call of duty lately in making it safer."
Joann Lewis, Gary's wife, added, "There are a lot more rules now than when it started here. When it started, there basically were no rules."
Jaci Anderson said the answer for safe tubing is simple: "If you're going to party, put on a life vest."