Officers fight crime on the lake
Don Stabenow and Elmer Cleveland have a job everybody wants.
Both were retired from lengthy law enforcement careers when an opportunity to patrol Lake Tahoe brought them back to the job.
The El Dorado County Sheriff’s deputies are two of four who patrol the county’s section of the lake.
“Dealing with the boating public is a lot different than people on the street,” Stabenow said. “They’re not as argumentative.”
At 8 a.m. on a Saturday boaters and sailors are already headed out for a day on the lake. Some of them are knowledgeable about Lake Tahoe’s special quirks – others are the uninitiated.
“The lake can be nasty. In an half hour it can change totally. We can have four to six foot rollers,” Cleveland said.
That’s part of the reason the boat used by the deputies is certified as an ocean worthy vessel.
“People don’t realize that here you can be up to five miles from shore,” Stabenow said. “It might be a hot day, but the water still stays really cool. It can be a shock to the system. I’ve seen people who think they can swim to shore from their boat. We do a lot of education every summer.”
Memorial Day to Labor Day are the boat patrol’s reigning months. During the winter the team is on call.
“We have people on the lake year round, but not many tourists come up during the winter it’s mostly residents,” Stabenow said.
Stabenow, 60, has worked on the lake for almost nine years and logged nearly 5,000 hours. Cleveland is on his fourth summer. Besides the obvious natural beauty of his patrol area, Stabenow said what really keeps him on the job is the people.
“The look on somebody’s face when they think they’re going to drown out here and you pull them out – that’s what keeps me coming back,” Stabenow said. “You only have to rescue one person. They may not thank you, but the expression on their face does.”
Even though their job is envied it carries danger. The deputies were starkly reminded of that with the May 24 death of Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Ed Callahan in Zephyr Cove. Callahan drowned after the small boat he was climbing into capsized.
El Dorado County’s patrol area runs from Stateline to Tahoma to smaller Fallen Leaf Lake, and with interstate pacts the deputies can issue citations all over the lake as long as there are similar laws. Through mutual aid agreements they also assist other agencies.
The area is wide and some days the deputies crisscross the water going from call to call. Stranded boaters are a typical stop. The patrol carries extra gas so they won’t have to waste time towing the boaters who didn’t plan ahead.
There is no speed limit on most of Lake Tahoe, but Emerald Bay is an exception.
“We get many people who maybe have never driven a boat before and don’t know what the different markers and buoys signify,” Stabenow said as he searched the bay for violators.
Within minutes several boats plowed through a clearly marked hazard zone at the entrance to the bay. Others ignore the no wake sign creating a perfect opportunity for the patrol to offer boaters some education. Stabenow recommends a Coast Guard auxiliary course for all Lake Tahoe boaters.
The patrol is constantly on the watch for inebriated boaters.
“There are too many that drink and drive out on the lake,” Stabenow said candidly. “Even among the locals.”
That violation can earn a person a handcuffed ride on the boat patrol to a waiting deputy on shore.
The marine unit is often called upon to help with accidents on the west shore of the lake. It is usually faster to transport patients by boat from the trail heads to a waiting ambulance than overland.
“We put these boats in places where most people wouldn’t put a boat,” Cleveland said. “We’re more about helping people than chasing the bad guys. You do that too, but on Lake Tahoe they can only run so far.”
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