Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

August 2, 2013

Underage drinking, nudity a growing problem on river

TAHLEQUAH — Bill James spent 32 years working for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, and saw all kinds of crime and violence during his tenure.

But it wasn’t until he became captain of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission rangers that he felt he reached his limit.

“On any given Saturday, beginning around 4 p.m., we have six to 12 fights involving a minimum of 15-20 people each, and they’re all drunk,” said James. “In 32 years on the OHP, I’ve never seen anything like I’ve seen in a year patrolling the Illinois River. I fully expect we’ll see a homicide on the river this year before we have a drowning.”

OSRC Administrator Ed Fite, in conjunction with Tahlequah’s Bringing Everyone’s Strengths Together coalition, recently attended an Anti-Drug Coalition of America Conference, to learn ways to abate underage drinking on the river – anbd to curb alcohol abuse, period.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” said Fite. “I spent the entire week in classes and one stood out. It was taught by a Vermont police officer, whose area included a river that had very much the same situation we see here on the Illinois on any Saturday in July.”

Fite learned about the multitude of devices available to those looking to conceal alcohol consumption, some of which he’s seen before.

“They have a built-in bladder for a woman’s bra, with a device leading out of the bra to pour alcohol into the cup,” said Fite. “There are also bladders men can strap to their bellies. There’s a Type 4 personal flotation device that will hold a full fifth of alcohol. We’ve dealt with a lot of these on the river, but some of the newer items include vodka-laced tampons and ball caps with alcohol-bladder liners.”

Beverages with an alcohol content higher than 3.2 percent are prohibited on the Illinois River, but that doesn’t seem to faze many visitors, said James.

Fite said float operators are not law enforcement, but do their best to explain the rules to visitors.

“Here’s the thing,” said James.

“We have rangers on the gravel bars at launch points like Peavine and inspect coolers and talk to people. But on a Saturday morning, a busload of 45-60 people will pull up, and before they’re in their boats, four more busloads pull up and before you know it, you’ve got 200 people on the gravel bar.”

Underage drinking,  nudity both problems

James said underage drinking is a huge problem, as is nudity.

“We’re trying our best, but when it’s six [rangers] against 10,000 visitors, all we can do is hope to make a dent in the problem. We try to be visible, and promote a strong and aggressive presence. But on Saturdays after 4 p.m., we literally run from one fight to the next. And I’d say half the people under the age of 18 are drinking, many with their parents’ blessing.”

This weekend, James and the rangers will be focusing on underage drinking.

“We’re going to hit the river hard this weekend, and we’ll be issuing tickets to minors in the possession of alcohol,” said James. “That ticket comes with a $300 fine and a driver’s license suspension. That’s how you reach the teenagers, by restricting their driving privileges.

James believes the OSRC should limit the amount of alcohol an individual can possess on the river.

“If they would make the rule, one six-pack per legal-age drinking person, we could enforce it,” said James.

Fite believes the introduction of rafts has increased the “party ‘til you drop” attitude on the river.

“Fully 55 percent of the licensed boats we have on the river are rafts,” said Fite.

“Sixty-nine percent of all floating occurs in Float Area 2, from Round Hollow to Combs Bridge. Also, in years past, we had the cooperation of the beer industry. Lee Houser, a Coors representative out of Muskogee, went out of his way to secure funding for boats and safety equipment for the rangers. The beer manufacturers do not support the agency like that today.”

James said many of the young visitors are respectful and are there just to enjoy the river.

“Unfortunately, we never get to meet them, because we’re busy dealing with the other 50 percent who are causing trouble.”

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