ON THE CONNECTICUT RIVER -- When he passes boaters, David Unaitis always makes it a point to wave, and he instructs others on his boat to do the same.
Unaitis, a lieutenant with the state Environmental Police who has spent his entire career patrolling woods and waterways in Western Massachusetts, tells the story from years ago when someone called the office to complain to a supervisor because an environmental officer on patrol failed to wave back when the boater waved hello.
“Now that I’m a supervisor, I don’t want anybody calling up because no one waved,” he says. “Make sure you wave.”
The waving, beyond being a gesture of goodwill and boating fraternity, also serves to remind the boaters that law enforcement is patrolling the river and everyone should operate their crafts responsibly. And, with more and more people taking to the Connecticut River than ever before, operating responsibly is the name of the game.
In his 26 years with the environmental police, Unaitis says he’s never seen as much traffic on the river as this summer.
“We’re seeing more river users than ever before,” Unaitis said. “There’s way too many people.”
On hot, weekend days from May to September, traffic on the Connecticut rivals that of the highway with hundreds of all types of boats, kayakers, paddle boarders all competing for limited space.
And it’s up to the environmental police and the Connecticut River Task Force, a flotilla of patrol boats staffed by police departments from communities along the river, to ensure everyone, for lack of a better term, goes with the flow.
For two hours on Thursday, Unaitis and Sgt. Jerry Shampang led a tour of the Connecticut River, from the shallows of Hatfield to the Holyoke dam, for Secretary Kathleen A. Theoharides of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Theoharides was in town for a first-hand look at issues along the Conneciticut and the work being done by police and the task force to maintain order.
Members of the task force include officers from police departments in Easthampton, Northampton, South Hadley, Hadley and Chicopee. Combined with the Environmental Police and Coast Guard representatives, they have worked to increase the visibility of law enforcement on the river and bring some order into what can at times be the Wild West of inland waterways.
With the pandemic shutting down everything from schools to offices to restaurants, bars and theaters, people are turning to the great outdoors. “We’re seeing much more use of recreational areas,” Theoharides said. “We’re seeing the number of (new) boat registrations trending up.”
More people can mean more problems, and there have been several accidents in state recreational properties over the last several months, including some drownings.
The Environmental Police patrols the river two to three days per week. The other agencies in the task force cover other times, and help on the weekends. “It would be terrible without the help of the locals who allow us to keep a handle on it.”
On the weekends, depending on the amount of traffic, it’s basically all hands on deck, according to Unaitis. HE notes one of the most effective means of curbing bad elements on the river involves police activity on land, not the water.
The state boat ramp off Route 5 near the Holyoke-Easthampton line is the only public access point for the river, and on busy days, it is packed. There are 35 parking spots in the launch area, but at times, particularly on weekends, it is not unusual to see as many as 100 vehicles and trailers parked bumper to bumper on the tree belt on each side of Route 5.
As part of the partnership, Easthampton police in recent months have been writing tickets to any boaters parked on the side of the road. “We control the ramp, and Easthampton controls the road,” Unaitis said. “If we can control what happens at that boat ramp, we can control what happens on the river.”
On Thursday, there were dozens of boats of all types, size and speeds operating in a 15-mile area north of the Holyoke dam and south of Hatfield. There were jet skis zipping all over the place. There are kayaks and people on paddle boats. And, there are people in the water swimming.
“If we can get through the weekend without someone being hurt or killed, that’s a good weekend,” Unaitis said, estimating the weekday activity is about a tenth of what happens on a weekend day.
Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, whose home overlooks a part of the Oxbow, said she is used to looking out her windows and seeing tons of traffic on the river. “We have some scary stuff. It’s frightening, the level of activity,” she said. “People love the river and the activity, but it can be simply dangerous.”
Environmental police officers spend their patrols looking for people acting recklessly or endangering themselves or others. Boats and jet skis driving 45 mph or more command their attention. So do boats that go too fast through designated slow-speed, or “no wake,” portions of the river.
To operate a vehicle on land, you need to pass a test to get a driver’s license, while on the water, anyone 16 or older can legally pilot a motorized boat without a license, and children as young as 12 can drive if an adult is present. There’s no equivalent of a driver’s education class for boat operators that teaches safety and rules of the road.
During patrols, police look to see if boats are registered, if there are enough life vests, or personal flotation devices, for everyone on board, and if the operator is drinking.
“Boats and alcohol go hand in hand,” Unaitis said. Most of the time when officers pull up alongside a boat with several people on board, every one of them, except the driver, will have a drink in their hands, he said.
During the July 4 weekend, the task force took part in Operation Dry Water, a national campaign to raise awareness of water safety. For the three-day weekend, several task force boats were on the water looking for safety violations, reckless boating and people with too much to drink.
As it is on roadways, it is against the law to drink alcohol and operate a boat. Just like on land, a blood-alcohol level of .08 is the legal limit, and to be caught boating under the influence of alcohol can result in a $1,000 fine and a one-year suspension of a driver’s license.
Shampang said they keep a close eye on boats going 45 mph – the speed limit – or more. A cop on the highway might let you slide if you do 65 mph in a 55 mph zone, but on the water it’s different, he said. Their patrol boat is equipped with a hand-held radar gun.
During the tour, as the patrol boat passed the state boat ramp and headed toward the main river channel, two jet skis, each with a driver and a passenger, surged ahead out into the water. A few more people were waiting at the dock.
Unaitis explained the jet skis were shuttling people across the river to an area on the South Hadley side known as Electricity Beach, a strip of sand underneath some power lines spanning the river. The beach is basically inaccessible by land and a popular spot to spend an afternoon.
Police officers make sure everyone has a lifejacket, but otherwise, it is permissible. It’s an example of the new kind of activity they see on the river.
Just entering the no-wake zone near the Coolidge Bridge, Unaitis pulled alongside a 10-foot aluminum boat with a small outboard motor that is puttering along. Onboard were a middle-aged man and woman. The boat had no hull identification number visible, a display that’s required under state law for any vessel powered by mechanical means.
“Hey cap’n,” the officer says to the man. “You got a registration?” The man holds up his registration application, and says he’s waiting for the state to send him his registration number and decal. Unaitis shouted OK and told the man to keep the paperwork on board until his registration is official. Otherwise, he may be stopped again.
Before pulling away, he waves. The couple wave back.
Unaitis said they look for and will stop any boat without a number. If the operator can show proof that they have filed an application, they will let it go. Otherwise, it’s a citation, he said.
Theoharides said the pandemic has seen more people buying boats, and, at the same time, a lag in the processing of boat registrations. “People have called me up to say ‘I just got a boat. Can you get me my number faster?’ I say no,” she said.
Moments later, a boat speeds past, towing two children on an inflatable raft. “I don’t see a spotter,” Shampang says.
Boats that are tubing or waterskiing need to have a spotter, someone other than the operator, dedicated to watching the people being towed in case there is a spill.
Unaitis turned the boat around. “Coming up,” he said, and the pursuit began. As they pulled in close, they could see two people in the boat, a man driving and a woman seated low in the back, keeping track of the kids on the inflatable raft. All four had quizzical expressions about the police boat that came after them, and Unaitis apologizes, shouting, “Sorry, cap’n. We couldn’t see your spotter.”
“That’s OK. Thanks for checking though,” the man shouts back.
Motoring past what is known as Mitch’s Island, a permanent, tree-lined sandbar in the river near Mitch’s Marina in Hadley, Unaitis and Shampang each say it is far from the pristine, natural habitat it appears. The island has for years been a natural stopping point for boaters, drawn to its sandy bottom and shallow water. It has also attracted some setting up semi-permanent residency during the summer.
Shampang uses his laptop to share photos from last year, showing the island’s interior littered with tents, tables, old campfires, hammocks, piles of trash, empty beer cans and liquor bottles, and human waste. “It’s a garbage pit,” he said.
He and Unaitis say they find it incomprehensible for people to come to the river and leave trash behind.
Both Mitch’s Island and Rainbow Beach, another sandbar just up the river on the Northampton side, are typically lined with boats each weekend. Rainbow Beach is part of a state-controlled wildlife conservation area because it is a breeding ground to an endangered insect known as the tiger beetle. “On Saturdays and Sundays, there will be no less than 1,000 people on the beach,” the sergeant said.
Until the endangered beetles were discovered 20 years ago, people once also camped in the woods just off the beach. “We kicked all the campers out,” he said. “There was an issue, and we had to clean it up. We did it.”
As they toured the river, the two paused to point out a bald eagle’s nest in trees along the banks near Northampton’s Meadows area. They spotted a great egret standing motionless in some weeds near the Oxbow. And, then, there were trash bags, litter and empty bottles left behind by visitors.
That can be upsetting, Unaitis says. “I care about the river because I grew up here,” he explains. “I’ve worked here for so long. I’ve been to the source in Pittsburgh, New Hampshire. I think I speak for ( Shampang) when I say we’re all in it because we care. We care about the resource.”
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