Critical mass

Labor Day tubers take to the river on a smaller scale

FREE RIDE <br>Tubers who set out from Irvine Finch faced a two and one-half mile float—about an hour’s worth of river—to Scotty’s Boat Landing. Continuing on to the Washout doubled that.

Tubers who set out from Irvine Finch faced a two and one-half mile float—about an hour’s worth of river—to Scotty’s Boat Landing. Continuing on to the Washout doubled that.

Photo By Tom Angel

Maybe next year:
Six months ago, a new law made it illegal to consume alcohol on a wildlife preserve. That could mean that next year the California Department of Fish and Game will coordinate with other agencies to forbid drinking on the river banks under their control. The catch: It’s still OK to drink in the water or on the shore below the high-water mark.

It’s tempting to call them river brats, but law enforcement officials say that this year participants in the annual tube-and-trash on the Sacramento River were for the most part pretty responsible.

The Labor Day event ended in 44 DUI arrests, 111 water assists (half as many as last year), 15 “critical rescues” and plenty of sunburns and hangovers. More than half of those arrested or cited were out-of-towners.

The scene was less dramatic than in previous years, as about 15,000 people were estimated to have turned out, compared to the 30,000-plus worst-case-scenario some public officials had feared.

“This year went a lot smoother,” said Lt. Tony Burdine of the Butte County Sheriff’s Department. “The kids coming off the river were respectful of law enforcement, [and] a lot of them tried to do their own cleanup. … I think the message is getting out that the river is not the place to be on Labor Day.”

College-age fun-seekers strapped inner tubes three-high to the top of Ford Escorts, toted inflatable rafts down River Road, navigated DUI checkpoints, sported Mardi Gras beads and showed off bare tummies. Public-service agencies patrolled and protected the river and its occupants.

By noon, the river was a sea of black inner tubes and $10 orange Wal-Mart rafts.

Private companies took advantage of the captive audience and set up shop alongside the river. The Red Bull energy drink people even hired bouncers to help keep the peace as they handed out free samples.

Rescuers scanned the water from personal watercrafts, and the larger boats ferried swimsuit-clad floaters to shore with cases ranging from bee stings to alcohol poisoning.

In between rescues, the people patrolling the river reminisced about previous Labor Day instances. Some were dangerously funny, like the “guy trying to use a six-pack of beer as a flotation device,” remembered Janet Marshall, public-information officer for CDF/Butte County Fire Rescue. Others were just sad, like last year when people were having sex on Beer Can Beach for video cameras purporting to be from Girls Gone Wild (the company later confirmed these were imposters).

Rescuers have come upon tubers who’ve hit a snag—even more of a possibility when rafts are tied together—and wouldn’t let go of their beer so they could paddle and push away with both hands.

“They’ll ditch their tube to save that beer,” observed Jaison Amor, of Hamilton City, a volunteer with Search and Rescue Swift Water Rescue.

Around noon on Sunday, rescuers brought in their first alcohol-related emergency case: a young woman in a red bikini, who, as she was being loaded into an ambulance, reported she’d consumed only toast and four shots of alcohol that day—plus another couple of drinks she got from random guys.

She was accompanied to shore by a girl she’d never met.

“That’s really refreshing to see,” Marshall said. “She didn’t even know her, and she rode into the hospital with her. If more people looked out for each other like that…”

“I’ve been doing this so long, I just try to keep my opinions to myself and make sure everyone gets out safe,” said Lt. Larry Jones of the Glenn County Sheriff’s Department.

Still, it can get a little old—and discouraging. Glenn County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ed Anderson said that, if his kid tried to tube on Labor Day, “I’d say, ‘You’re an idiot.'”

“It’s one thing just to get out here and tube. It’s when you overindulge that some innocent gal gets hurt or date-raped,” Anderson said. “We’ve had near-drownings, where we’re picking them off of the bottom,” he said, but the worst incident in his memory of Labor Day river patrol was a couple of years ago when rescuers came to the aid of a girl lying naked on the beach, nearly comatose. “I know she’d been used as a pincushion.”

They’re all surprised no one has died.

Jones said reveling tubers misjudge their abilities and the power of the river. “The problem is, the water’s so cold [about 64 degrees] and they get to drinking and they don’t think. Then hypothermia sets in.”

The law-keepers set up at a command station next to a stinky pile of fertilizer, armed with water and Gatorade.

“This is months and months of work,” said Cheryl Kyle, public-information officer for Butte County Sheriff’s Department. (Later in the day, the good-natured Kyle was the target of a shouted, “Hey, sheriff chick, show us your rack.")

Butte County officials videotaped the festivities to justify the yearly expenditure of resources to the California Department of Boating and Waterways. “We just like them to see where their money’s going,” said George Mahon of the Sheriff’s Department Marine Unit.

“This has almost become like a Rose Parade. You see all the rafts [decorated],” he observed. “In a few years, who knows, they might have judging out there.”

Meanwhile, garbage cans filled up and spilled over. Beer cans were discarded into the water, where they bobbed along next to inflatable octopi and beach balls.

“If there’s one thing they could do, it’s take their trash with them,” Mahon said. On Tuesday, jail inmates were on cleanup duty, citizens dropped by to volunteer, and Chico State University students had organized a cleanup project for Sept. 6.

Throughout the day, emergency workers noted that, while medical emergency calls came in earlier in the day than expected, overall things seemed a little less intense than in prior years.

The CDF’s Marshall said, “On the water, everyone’s disposition was a lot more mellow.” Things went downhill in the late afternoon and early evening as tubers exited the river. Four people were arrested after getting into a fight outside Scotty’s Boat Landing.

By the end of the day, rescuers had responded to 15 medical emergencies, including alcohol overdoses, near-drownings and a head laceration. Five people were transported to Enloe Medical Center, four of them for alcohol poisoning. This is also the first year in memory that no sexual assaults have been reported so far. Besides the CHP’s 26 DUI arrests after 4 p.m., Chico police checkpoints nabbed 18 on the way in. About 300 citations were given out for other violations, such as minors in possession.

All told over the long weekend, Chico PD made 105 arrests, seven of them for felonies. There were 262 alcohol-related citations by Chico PD and the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, most of them for minors in possession and 60 percent of them issued to out-of-towners.