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Crew removes deadly snag from river.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

Unwary boaters face plenty of hazards in the McKenzie River, but the submerged snag at its confluence with the Mohawk isn't one of them anymore.

Lane County sheriff's deputies, who have responded to a fatality and three other emergencies at that spot in the river the past few days, spent several hours on Tuesday wrestling the downed tree out of the way. They had help from the Mohawk Fire Department and two concerned residents.

"People just do not understand the power of that river," said Keith Bedortha, a Springfield contractor who brought in a 17,000-pound track hoe to drag the log to the bank.

The stretch of the McKenzie River from Hayden Bridge down to Armitage Park is popular with inexperienced boaters, many of whom believe they can safely float the river without paddles or life vests, said Bob Gorham, Mohawk Fire Department assistant chief.

When the temperatures hit the 90s and 100s, they come by the score, he said.

And while most of the river is an easy float, the spot where it bends sharply west hangs up unwary boaters. Several downed trees litter the water there, but the submerged snag has been the deadly one. A couple of feet in diameter, 60 to 90 feet long, the only hint of its presence is a riffle of water above it and a couple of tines from its root ball sticking up.

The remains of a yellow and blue raft could still be seen tangled there on Tuesday morning. That raft carried a Springfield woman to her death last year, said Bill Rozar, whose home overlooks that stretch of the river.

When Eugene kayaker Renee Wyser-Pratte drowned at the same spot on Sunday, it hit rescue workers and neighbors hard.

So when Damon Rapozo, who owns the land on the opposite side of the river from Rozar, got a call from a Lane County sheriff's deputy on Monday asking if officers could use his property as an access point to remove the log, he not only agreed, he contacted Bedortha, who brought in the heavy machinery at no charge.

"I couldn't believe it happened again," Rapozo said of the latest drowning. The river deceives a lot of people, because it looks so placid there, he said.

"But that thing really grabs you," he said of the submerged log.

And moving it was no easy chore. It took close to four hours for deputy Paul Vitus and search and rescue coordinator John Miller to clear out five other logs before they even got to the submerged snag.

Miller, wearing a dry suit, waded into the shallow water, wrapped straps around the smaller logs, then got out of the way as the track hoe moved them onto the bank.

The submerged log took another two hours to clear, snapping two towing straps before deputies brought in a heavy metal cable. Even then, it hardly budged until an officer with a chain saw cut through the log several feet beyond the root ball.

That done, the track hoe operator was able to drag the root ball close to the bank. The lengthy trunk swung loose in the current and moved slowly over to the bank as well.

One other submerged log remained, a scuff of roiled water hinting at it, but Gorham, watching from shore, said it was unlikely to cause boaters problems.

"It's 100 percent better now that the main hazard is gone," he said.

Rozar and his wife, Kay Kelly, hope it means fewer anguished calls to 911, and no more squeals of delight from boaters turning into screams for help. The couple spent most of the morning watching the removal effort.

"I'm totally impressed with their dedication and skill," Kelly said. "They did what they did to save lives."

But Vitus, a marine patrol officer who regularly rescues boaters, wishes people on the river would just be more careful. Officers can't remove every hazard, and can't always get to people fast enough once they run into trouble.

People need to pay attention to their surroundings, he said, and wear life vests whenever they're on the water.

Wyser-Pratte, who died on Sunday, had a life jacket in her kayak but wasn't wearing it when the current flipped her into the water.

Vitus, a veteran on the water, always wears his, he said.

"I look like a bumble bee in my yellow helmet and yellow life jacket, but I'm going to live," he said.


John Miller, sheriff's search and rescue coordinator, inches along a snag Tuesday in the McKenzie River to secure pulling cables. A yellow raft from a drowning last year is visible under the water's surface.
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Title Annotation:Accidents; Deputies, firefighters and a contractor with a track hoe pitch in to clear out the log
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 3, 2005
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