By Kim Brooks, Express Editor
A few weeks ago, Ray and Mary Heeren were woken up in the middle of the night by a knock on their door. The Heerens live on Richland Road outside of Monticello, with land along the Maquoketa River.
Ray said a group of young kids were standing outside their front door in swimming attire at 2 a.m. It seems the group was lost while floating the river in the dark.
Ray said he runs into these issues a lot, with people on the river at any time of the day “not using common sense,” as he puts it. With pastureland adjoining the Maquoketa River, he sees people climbing the hill and jumping into shallow water.
“A lot of people could get hurt,” he said. Ray said he has also heard of multiple drownings in the area due to unsafe river practices.
“Every year it gets worse.”
With locals and people from out of town using the river for recreation, especially during hot summer months, they need to be attentive to river conditions and use common sense.
“I don’t want to see people getting hurt out there,” said Ray. “I feel terrible.”
Jones County Conservation Ranger John Klein said if people follow safe rules while on any body of water, they could prevent many things from going wrong.
“As long as the (Maquoketa) river has been here, there have been problems,” said Klein. “More and more people are just using the river now.”
One way to correct the misuse of the river would be to put law enforcement officers on the river itself. That is a problem that will soon be fixed, as Jones County Conservation and the Sheriff’s Department have purchased a $22,000 boat. Klein estimates the boat would soon be on the water within the next couple of weeks. Klein said there was a need for this boat, which operates in shallow water and mud.
“It could even drive over sandbars in certain situations,” said Klein.
The Sheriff’s Department does have a boat of its own, but Klein explained it is used for rescue and recovery operations, similar to the incident at Wapsipinicon State Park that took place on June 1 involving a teacher from the Anamosa School District.
What took three years of planning and fundraising will soon be of use. The new county boat could also be used in flood-type situations as well.
“We want to use the boat all over the county,” said Klein. With the cost of the boat, $15,000 came in as private donations.
Klein said having a law enforcement official on any river would be similar to having police patrol a city or county. He said when you see a patrol car, you tend to lower your speed or stop any activity that may be illegal. The same is said for seeing patrol on the river.
“We have been working with the Sheriff’s Department and they are on board for making officers visible on the river,” said Klein of both the Wapsi and Maquoketa rivers. “Certain types of activity will decrease.”
With 90 miles worth of waterways in Jones County, Klein said it is hard to patrol and man the water at all times.
“We only have so many deputies.”
Klein offered various tips for those taking advantage of the rivers in Jones County:
• Hard liquor is illegal on the water. Beer and wine coolers over a liter are illegal. Beverages in glass can injure river users when left behind. Aluminum cans do not degrade when left behind.
Klein said many local outfitters provide bags to customers for their trash while floating. He said some entities also take a day to clean the river.
• If you enter the water below Mon Maq Dam and intend to float to Pictured Rocks Park Access, allow at least five hours on the river. Of course, the timeframe depends on the flow of the river, water levels and stops on sandbars along the way.
• Bring garbage bags along on your float to keep garbage in. Klein said any littering along the rivers is illegal and if caught, you will be fined.
• Use common sense when on the water. Outfitters rent out equipment during daylight hours for a reason, so people are not on the water past dark.
“Know where you’re at,” advised Klein. “Know your abilities.”
Klein said outfitters around the area are very good about informing customers about river safety and rules. • Ray Heeren said it would be nice to see signs for navigation along the river so people know when they’re getting to their destination. Klein said typically water trails do not have signs, as it could get expensive to keep them maintained and put up in the first place.
“The users (on the river) need to take responsibility on their own,” said Klein.
Within the past two years, Klein has seen almost 40 rescues along both the Maquoketa and Wapsi rivers, typically from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
“Our presence on the river will hopefully fix a lot of that,” he offered. “My goal is to have the boat on the rivers at least once a week.”
With the Conservation Department and the Monticello Police working together when it comes to river situations, Klein said “that helps us out a lot.”
• You must have the same number of lifejackets in your watercraft as there are people. Klein said they are not required for tubing, but lifejackets are needed for those in a canoe or kayak.
“They need to be readily accessible,” he said, which means not underneath a cooler, not being used as a seat cushion and not thrown in the back of the boat.
“If you tip or are in a dangerous situation,” having that lifejacket handy is a must,” Klein said.
While outfitters do provide lifejackets, Klein said if their customers do not use them, the outfitters are not liable.
According to Farm Bureau Financial Services, “the U.S. Coast Guard reports that more than two-thirds of the victims in boating accidents were not wearing life kackets.”
PHOTO: During the summer, you can find numerous people on the Maquoketa River, floating from Mon Maq Dam to Pictured Rocks Park. While the river offers great recreational opportunities, using common sense while on the water will allow others to enjoy the river as well. (Photo by Kim Brooks)