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Safe Water Recreation

Protect yourself and the shoreline with these boating safety tips

The season has nearly come, once again, for getting out on the magnificent waterways of our region. Boating is one of those recreational activities that most everyone loves, whether it be motorized or non-motorized, fast or slow, exciting or relaxing, alone or with friends. However, boating can also be dangerous and have devastating impacts on the shoreline if boaters do not heed local rules and regulations to keep people safe and the soil in place.

Currently, the highest boating risks involve high, dangerous water, says Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks boater education coordinator Liz Lodman. “The flood stage water, very cold, and lots of debris in the water make it a dangerous time.”

The weather to date this “summer” hasn’t been the stuff boaters’ dreams are made of, and Lodman notes that usage has been down. She anticipates that with a little more sunshine and higher temperatures, the boaters will be out in full force later this summer.

Bonner County Sheriff’s Office Marine Deputy Cary Kelly notes that in Bonner County the biggest issue is cold water. There has already been a drowning this season. “It is usually warming up by now, but this season, it is still in the 50s.” Kelly also reports low usage on the lake. “Probably weather, fuel, and Lake Pend Oreille not being full,” he speculates. The high flows have lent themselves to dangerous conditions on the Pend Oreille River also, reports Kelly. Conditions are especially dangerous right now down by Albeni Falls Dam.

The purpose of having speed limits, no wake zones, and even restrictions for motorized boats on lakes, reservoirs and rivers is to protect the wildlife habitat present, keep the shoreline intact, and to reduce the impact of nuisance noise, traffic and speed on waterfront residences and businesses. No wake zones, in Montana, are defined as a complete lack of “white” water in the track or path of a motorboat or personal watercraft (such as jet skis). In Montana, all lakes and reservoirs over 35 surface acres must abide by a no-wake zone within 200 feet of the shoreline.

“We have a 200 foot setback from shore (in Bonner County) to keep soil erosion on the shoreline to a minimum,” says Kelly. “It is particularly important when you have lots of small bays, deltas, and sloughs—any areas that are confining, it is really critical that boats slow down.”

Lodman notes that, in Montana, the most common boating accidents occur when boaters (both motorized and non-motorized) hit submerged rocks, other boats, or wood/logs in the water and when unforeseen events happen and the boaters aren’t wearing their lifejackets.

“Lifejackets are a big thing,” she says. “People should know that there are many different kinds of lifejackets available now that are much more comfortable.” An example would be inflatable lifejackets, which either automatically inflate when submersed, or contain a CO2 canister.

MFWP works with local entities in many areas to provide free loaner life jackets. Avista Utilities is one such entity, providing loaner life jackets at Pilgrim Creek Park in Noxon. Loaners are also available in Trout Creek and Thompson Falls. In Idaho, as of 2002, if boating on a vessel that is 19 feet in length or less, children 14 years of age and younger must wear an approved PFD while the vessel is underway.

The “rules of the road” for boating are similar to driving. Sailboats and non-motorized boats always have the right-of-way over personal watercraft. In Montana, personal watercraft must remain 200 feet away from other boats, docks, or swimmers. When two boats meet head-on, each must alter course to the right to avoid collision. When crossing paths with another motorboat, the vessel on the right has the right-of-way. It must hold its course and speed. Slow down to let the boat on the right continue its course, and then pass behind it. A boat being overtaken has the right-of-way; it also must hold its course and speed. It is illegal to cross or jump the wake of another boat when within 100 yards of the vessel (or anything being towed by it). Do not operate a boat within 75 feet of a person engaged in fishing or hunting waterfowl unless it is unavoidable.

Boats must be launched from established launch areas (if provided). It is illegal to discharge any garbage, waste, refuse, or sewage into or near the water. Boats equipped with toilets or porta-potties must dispose of their waste properly. Because there are so few pump-out stations in Montana and Idaho, boaters should check the availability of waste disposal stations before using onboard facilities.

In Montana, motorboats and personal watercraft may not emit noise in excess of 86 decibels at a distance of 50 feet. At idle speed, exhaust noise may not be in excess of 90 decibels measured one meter from the muffler. In Idaho, lakes/rivers over 500 feet require that the boats do not exceed 75 decibels (as measured from shore).

Before you can legally operate a car or truck, you are required to pass a driving exam and obtain a driver’s license. In Montana, some motorboat operators are also required to take an exam and be certified. In Idaho, there is no mandatory boater education, though it is strongly encouraged and Kelly speculates that it will “go that direction soon.”

Montana state law requires anyone 13 or 14 years of age who wants to operate a motorboat or personal watercraft over 10 horsepower, to take an exam and get a motorboat operator certificate. If youth 14 and under don’t have a certificate, they must be accompanied by an adult. There are several ways that a boater can become certified:

• Take a boat class. The US Coast Guard Auxiliary offers boating safety classes in some parts of the state. Check online for upcoming classes at http://www.mtcgaux.com.

•Take a home-study boating course. Montana FWP offers a home-study option. Packets are available at all FWP offices. Call Lodman at 406- 444-2615 to sign up for a home-study course or get more information.

• Take an online course. The following courses are approved for use in Montana:





In Bonner County, boater safety classes will be offered July 19 at Priest River and July 26 at Priest Lake. Certified instructors teach the classes and certificates are given to students who take the course. To sign up or get more information, call Kelly at 208-263-8417 ext. 257. Materials are provided and the class is free.

The Boat US Foundation suggests the following actions for maintaining your boat in a responsible way

Reuse and recycle. Recycle spent antifreeze, fuel, oil, oil filters, and batteries.

Put a sturdy trash can on your boat to prevent items from blowing away into the water.

Tune up your engine for optimum performance and efficiency.

Clean your (boat) bottom.

Encourage your local marinas to recycle.

Make sure your prop is clean and in good condition to increase performance and decrease fuel consumption.

Cleaning your bilge will help you spot fuel/oil leaks, avoid discharging petroleum products in the water, and decrease the chances of spreading aquatic invasive species.

Wash your boat often! It reduces the potential for pollutants and aquatic hitchhikers to enter the water (especially if you move from water body to water body).

Refuel carefully.

Clean naturally by using natural cleaners such as vinegar and baking soda, or biodegradable cleaners and detergents. You will help reduce the amount of solvents and chemicals going into the water.

When in the presence of anything other than humans, be respectful; boats are not the most critter friendly devices. If your boating practices interrupt an animal’s normal behavior, you are too close, too big, or too active. Use binoculars or zoom lenses to watch wildlife. Make yourself as small and unobtrusive as possible. Avoid disturbing waterfowl to make them fly. Give nests and nesting areas a wide berth to help protect eggs or the young. When adult birds are forced from a nest, the eggs are exposed to the elements and predators. An absence of as little as one hour can mean death for the young. In northwestern Montana, where loon nests are common, many nesting sites are protected by floating signs. No boat or personal watercraft may be used to kill, capture, take, pursue, concentrate, drive, or stir up any game birds, nor game or fur-bearing animals.

Enforcement of boating laws, in Montana, is under the discretion of MFWP; they also have rulemaking authority over no-wake zones and non-motorized access. When public health or environmental concerns warrant wake and boat restrictions, MFWP may go through the rulemaking process to get special designations on specific water bodies. In Idaho, the County Sheriff’s Office patrols the waters and enforces the state and local rules, regulations, and ordinances.

Kelly urges Lake Pend Orielle boaters to be conscious and careful of the railroad bridge construction (adjacent to the Long Bridge) this summer. Crews will be using explosives to blow up the concrete abutments; the construction began in April and will continue through October. “We want boaters to stay away from the area as much as possible,” says Kelly.

When packing your boat with passengers and gear, remember to distribute the weight of passengers and weight evenly. Keep gear low and centered. In the case of an accident, boating accident reports are required for those that involve the death or disappearance of a person, an injury requiring medical treatment (beyond first-aid), or property damage in excess of $100.

“Have fun on the water, but remember the rules,” advises Lodman. “It can be dangerous. Always be prepared for the unexpected.” She says boaters should always be prepared with the proper equipment, leave a float plan (so people know where you are in case something happens), have communication onshore, and remember that nationally, it is reported that between 30 to 50 percent of boating accidents involve alcohol.


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Author info

Kate Wilson Kate Wilson was a Project Journalist for Avista's Clark Fork Project. She has been interested in environmental issues since she was a youngster.

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