A day in the life of a Lake Dillon patroller
Few know the waters of Lake Dillon better than Erin Sirek. As soon as the alpine reservoir thaws, she can be found manning her boat along its many inlets.
“You come there in the morning before it gets busy and you just watch the birds,” she said. “Where else do you see bald eagles every day? Osprey will dive in next to your boat and pull fish out of the water.”
Most days, the mornings are the calm before the storm. As boaters flood the surface on sunny afternoons, and dark clouds roll in just as quickly, Sirek prepares to assist boaters swept away or overturned by the strong winds. This is her second season on the water with the Summit County Sheriff’s Boat Patrol unit, a three-person team that patrols the reservoir every day from May through October.
With last weekend’s air show and toasty weather, Sirek had her hands full, with several rescues. They helped several boats who ran aground on hidden sandbars, kayakers blown away from shore by strong winds and the occasional overturned ship.
“Priority number one is getting people out of the water,” Sirek said. “When you first go in, you feel that shock”
The shock, of course, meaning the frigid water, which is about 50 degrees at the surface in June, and only goes up to 60 degrees in August. The amount of time one can spend in the lake before going hypothermic varies with the time of year, but estimates range from 15 to 30 minutes.
“Your body can quickly go into a cold shock, making self-rescue extremely difficult and potentially impossible if exposed to the water for too long,” Sirek added.
In the past, Sirek has made some hair-raising rescues, as thunderstorms roll in quickly from the mountains. She’ll crank her boat, a 21-foot Boston Whaler, at full speed in search of stranded or overturned boaters.
“When the weather gets bad, we’re going out,” she said. “There are times where, I am not kidding, I’ve gone airborne over a wake.”
In one case, an incoming storm blew a family stuck in a disabled boat all the way from the Snake Inlet, near Summit Cove, to the dam.
“That was, weather- and wind-wise one of the hardest (rescues),” Sirek recalled.
When Sirek first moved to Summit, she had never thought of boat patrol as an option. With a background of 20 years in social work, she transferred to the area from Colorado Springs, and started getting involved with ski patrol and search and rescue.
“I realized how much I love the work,” Sirek said. “It opened my eyes to all kinds of careers that I didn’t realize.”
After applying to the coveted seasonal boat patrol job, after several weeks of training, Sirek started working on the water. This includes, firearms training, arrest control, boating and swift-water rescue training, in addition to on-the-job training.
“I can’t express how fortunate I am to have this job,” she said. “I’m grateful these guys gave me a shot.”
During the winter, she continues to volunteer with ski patrol. Both jobs lend themselves to rescue techniques, including EMT training and tying a plethora of knots. In total, she’s lived in Summit at least part-time since 2003.
“It’s the perfect mix,” she said.
a little bit of everything
As a special division with the sheriff’s office, boat patrol’s responsibilities are also outlined by the Dillon Reservoir Recreation Committee (DRReC), which helps provide funding for the unit. The committee is a combination of the Denver Water Board, U.S. Forest Service, and Summit County, Frisco and Dillon governments.
To meet DRReC’s needs, patrollers will also help monitor campgrounds, remove boat-damaging debris from the water, and assist marinas with everything from runaway buoys to enforcement.
“We’re out there by ourselves most of the time,” Sirek said. “Sometimes it gets a little lonely. That’s why it’s nice to be near the campground and marinas.”
Some of the most common tasks include making sure boaters have life vests and preventing people from taking a dip in the frigid water.
“People seem to think the rules change and you’re allowed to swim,” she laughed.
For this summer’s triathlon, the first to approve swimming as an event in the lake, boat patrol will also play a supportive role.
As the unit is also trained for swift-water rescues, they will often be the first to respond to those types of calls. Sirek said so far, this season, they’ve had one or two rescues.
“That will start to pick up now that the water’s running a little higher,” she said. “Those calls go really fast.”
For emergencies outside of the Dillon Reservoir, the sheriff’s office has a second, smaller boat that can be transported quickly by trailer. While DRReC doesn’t cover Green Mountain Reservoir, the area is still within the Summit County Sheriff Office’s jurisdiction. Both patrollers and the volunteer staffed Water Rescue Team responded to a case last summer where Summit High School student Jefte Flores drowned in the reservoir.
Years prior, a local family donated a side-scan sonar to the sheriff’s office after their son, Adam Brown, drowned in Lake Dillon. They raised funds for the piece of equipment in 2008, to assist with body recovery, and help locate boats and other objects underwater.
“Everything just continues to evolve,” interim Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “The increase in staff, the increase in technology on the boats … it’s a huge deal.”
The unit has been around for at least 20 years and has changed substantially since the beginning. This year, the sheriff’s office made the decision to arm boat patrol officers for the first time.
“When it’s turned into a law enforcement contact instead of a safety or educational contact, it’s for their own protection,” FitzSimons said. “If there was a criminal incident in one of the campgrounds, they would probably be the first on scene.”
Most of the time, however, the officers’ primary role is education and rescuing over ticketing.
“The education piece is so huge out there,” he said. “It’s the exception if we don’t do a few rescues a day. That weather gets crazy out there.”
Outside of the obvious — don’t swim in the lake — Sirek often sees boaters without life jackets or unmarked vessels. The full list of rules and regulations is available at http://www.denverwater.org/Recreation/Dillon/RulesRegulations/.
“It’s super important to know that if anyone ever feels unsafe or needs help, please don’t hesitate to call 911 or the non-emergency dispatch number,” Sirek added. “We may not be on the lake 24/7, but we are always available.”
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