Labor Day event fun, frightening

Published 2001-09-05T00:00:00Z”/>


Jeanine Gore<br>Assistant News Editor

If a giant sieve was placed in the Sacramento River this Labor Day weekend, it probably would have trapped more lost flip flops, beer cans, T-shirts, lawn furniture, inner tubes and car keys than have ever floated downstream in one day.

A record-breaking 20,000 people drifted down the river Monday – 8,000 more people than officials anticipated, and most of them either lost something, forgot something or both.

Others were lucky to leave with their lives.

More than 200 people were rescued by more than 100 law enforcement officers and emergency personnel patrolling in boats, ambulances and helicopters, on personal watercrafts and on foot.

“This event just gets larger and larger. I don’t know if it’s turning into a Halloween-type thing,” said Janet Marshall of Butte County Fire and Rescue and the California Department of Forestry. “I mean, last year, right off the bat, we rescued three people from UC Davis. When we get a call out here it’s not just one person we’re rescuing.

Each call is multiple victims, six and seven people at a time.”

Although most people don’t realize it, one of the most dangerous elements in the river are “strainers,” which are submerged trees and rocks that can wrap boats and catch people as they float past. Because the current is so strong, people cannot free themselves and may drown, Marshall said.

“I think people realize that we’re not here to say, `Hey! Don’t do this or that,'” she said. “I think they realize we’re here for their own protection. If we weren’t here we’d be sitting at the station. People would be injured and think of the response time.”

By 7:30 p.m., law enforcement reported 43 “incidents” including near-drownings, hypothermia cases, citations for driving under the influence of alcohol and other miscellaneous happenings.

“It’s a zoo. We had two legitimate near-drownings of college-aged girls caught in strainers. The wave runners pulled them out,” Marshall said. “The sun is setting and we’re still here in full force.”

Aside from the hundreds empty – and oftentimes full – beer cans lost along the way, many people searched in tears for their keys.

“We’re seeing a lot of lost keys and lock-outs, so I imagine there are many lonely keys floating at the bottom of the Sacramento River. People leave the river banged and bruised up, but they seem to be medicated by alcohol so it doesn’t phase them,” Marshall said.

The simple act of carting alcohol down the river can make the trip more dangerous.

“The biggest problem in the past has been when they tie a cooler to their leg, thinking it’s a smart idea,” said Sidne Gray of Butte County Search and Rescue.

She pointed to a cluster of branches peeking a foot out of the water.

“It’s a whole tree down there, of course, but most people don’t see it that way. They go one way, the cooler goes the other and they’re in big trouble,” Gray said. “The water is incredibly powerful around a snag. It’s not illegal but it’s foolish to tie on.”

Gray said normally people drift downstream feet first, however, when a “strainer” blocks their path they should instead travel headfirst, grab the obstacle and climb over it – a maneuver that saves lives.

While officials focused on safety, the football field-sized stretch of sand and weeds known as “Beer Can Beach” was the main attraction for revelers. It hosted thousands of dancing, screaming, writhing people crammed together to watch three bands, a deejay, a wet T-shirt contest and even a few dancing naked people.

Meanwhile, speedboats carrying sheriffs and Butte County Search and Rescue volunteers scanned the area for anyone needing assistance, and California Highway Patrol blocked off River Road and directed thousands of inner tube-filled cars.

Later, a rescue boat raced to an area of trees along the bank of the river where two people were reported trapped and hypothermic.

Although it was 105 degrees outside, the river was about 54 degrees, according to law enforcement. Hypothermia could affect person submerged in that temperature in about 30 minutes.

And people caught by underwater branches and by law enforcement weren’t the only ones in trouble.

Jim Banks, a member of the band Sylo, which performed on the beach, said all the band’s equipment was loaded onto a speedboat that never made it to the beach because its engine failed.

“We woke up at 6 a.m., we were ready to go. The boat crapped on us, but we made it out here anyway, and we are ready to play. We’re gonna make it happen. I’d say it’s a Cinderella story, really,” Banks said smiling.

While thousands of people raged on the beach and in the shallow water, others chose to perch themselves away from the flying beer cans.

“I find this unbelievable,” said Matthew Gower, a Butte College student. “It’s obscene, people destroying Styrofoam containers and letting them float down river. If people want to come and observe nature then they should look after it.

“I haven’t seen one cop give a ticket, but there’s thousands of people littering,” he added as he held onto an orange raft filled with empty beer cans he’d collected from the water.

Although some people entered the river at 10 a.m. to begin the one-hour cruise downstream, the intoxicated exodus of people leaving the river occurred between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Some headed for nearby Scotty’s Landing for a drink and to hear Mystic Roots close out the day’s festivities. Others, tired and sunburned, dragged themselves and all their drenched belongings to their cars.

At 6 p.m., members of Associated Students managed to clean up a ramp at Irvine Finch River Access Park, but their attempts to pick up refuse on Beer Can Beach and Scotty’s Landing were foiled by thousands of remaining partyers, darkness and car traffic, said Jimmy Reed, A.S. executive vice president.

The cleanup effort will resume Saturday with Recycle on the River, an event sponsored by Adventure Outings and A.S.

Tony Canha, a Butte College student, said this year was his third time riding down the river on Labor Day, and he considers it his best trip, despite having had his beer confiscated by officials because he is a minor.

“I’m alive so I guess that’s all that matters. People shared their beer and I pulled a few from the river so I had a good time,” he said. “Now I’m just trying to get a ride back home.”