Obstacle course: Boaters warned to be careful when navigating lake

ON LAKE LANIER - Usually, it takes years for an island to burst through the surface of the ocean.

But with the waters receding at Lake Sidney Lanier as the state drifts into another year of drought, another island can surface each week.

That's why officials are warning boaters to beware this summer as they navigate a changing and drying lake.

"My worst fear is the 2 a.m. call with a boating accident," said Ranger Mark Stephens, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources officer who spends his days patrolling the southern shores of the lake, just north of Buford. "It changes. The way the lake is laid out will be totally different all because of the water level. It's on everybody's mind."

While Stephens doesn't expect a troublesome summer, he said the potential for danger is high while the lake is low.

"I've always been told this is a real high-traffic lake, one of the busiest in the state," Stephens said. "If we have the same amount of traffic on a smaller amount of water, it can be scary. ... I could be a little worried."

The drought has left Lanier about 13 feet below its full pool level this spring. But other Georgia lakes are still full, and Stephens said he has heard many people are towing their boats to Allatoona or Blue Ridge.

Still, last year, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed many boat ramps because the expanding shore made them impossible to use, Stephens said he and fellow officers were often called to break up fights of people waiting in line to launch their boats.

"I don't see any traffic," Jackie Joseph, a Buford woman who lives beside the lake, said about recent spring weekends on the lake. "Give it another few weeks."

Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of the summer boating season. That's when the locals who know the lake could be joined by hundreds of inexperienced boaters who aren't aware of the lake's new topography.

With the hills and trees below the surface of the man-made lake, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommends boaters use technology such as a GPS and depth finders to navigate around the shallowest parts of the lake. With permanent hazard markings dangling high above islands, Corps rangers have placed temporary orange ball floats out to mark the places where boaters should be cautious, but those change constantly, Stephens said.

Bill Carson, promotions manager for Bass Pro Shops, said the sale of GPS systems has gone up because of concerns about lake hazards.

One hot item is cartography created by Navionics available for Lanier to show the contours of the bottom of the lake. Carson said it cannot be adjusted for lake levels but can be set to highlight any contours less than five meters down, which would pinpoint the areas of danger on the lake now.

Carson said he has the latest technology on his boat, but he's still concerned about trees, since only the tops of trees were cut off when the lake was built more than 50 years ago. Fishermen often make brush piles beneath the surface, too, that may now be obstructions in the water.

"I've been fortunate I haven't hit anything," Carson said. "I'm more concerned for the average weekend anglers. A lot of weekend warriors don't have the technology."

Even Stephens' DNR boat doesn't have sonar equipment or cartography.

Instead, like most boaters, he navigates by experience and memory.

Last summer, though, Stephens had his own "near-miss."

He was speeding along, chasing a jet-skier operating after hours, when he almost ran aground on a sand bar.

"This right here will eat you up at night. It's kind of a mirage," he said, pointing to some islands near the DNR's dock at Aqualand Marina. While the islands are evident, Stephens pointed out that little water covered land between them.

"We went right through that. We were probably in two to three feet of water before we realized it. It's a trap."

Stephens said the area by Old Federal Park is the worst in the southern end of the lake, especially because boaters speed from the open water area near Holiday Marina and enter the more treacherous area at top speed.

"These boats are so fast. There are no brakes on them," he said. "Fortunately, nobody's gotten hurt, which amazes me."

Joseph said she won't let the drought keep her away from her summer pastime, but she's concerned about it.

"I think being cautious is the issue," she said. "If you get out to the deeper area of the lake, its OK. ... I would hate to see a first-time person go out and find the shallow areas."

Joseph has lived at the lake for 30 years, and she said she's experienced some dry periods before. This is the lowest summer level she can remember, although the lake has gained about five feet since hitting the all-time low last December.

"The weather has been beautiful. It's ideal for boating," she said. "I don't know what's in stock for people. Depending on the type of boat you have, the knowledge of the lake, you're probably OK. If you aren't familiar with it, you are taking a chance."

With the lake level low and gas prices high, the summer boating season may experience its own drought, but Stephens said he hopes that people still enjoy their summer at the lake.

He recommends boaters drive carefully and stay sober. Also, he encourages people to reduce or eliminate boating at night. "For someone that's inexperienced it can be a hazard. It can be dangerous," he said.

Boaters should also make sure they have the proper safety equipment, including life vests and a fire extinguisher, as well as a map of the lake to find their way along a changing shoreline. Last year, there were about 80 reported boating accidents at Lake Lanier, including seven fatalities, Stephens said.

While Stephens hears complaints about the Corps' releases from Buford Dam nearly every time he stops a boater, he said his concern is more about the future than the past.

"They've got a job to do. We help them. ... What's done is done, all we can do is cross our fingers," he said, looking over the sparkling water. "It's on everybody's mind."