The wet blanket rule just won’t fit all sizes

Wanna start an uproar? Churn up the waters? Institute an alcohol ban on parts of some of Michigan’s prettiest, most popular paddling rivers.

Backlash to the Huron-Manistee National Forest ban announced early this month was swift and sure, and within a week of the announcement, the rule tipped into “delayed” status.

The rollout was admittedly rocky — an accidental typo in the original statement called for an “up to 5-years in prison” punishment, which seemed extreme, even for the people supporting the ban.

(It was actually punishable by a maximum $5,000 fine and up to six months behind bars).

But that’s the thing with a one-size-fits-all kind of policy; it takes the ability for reasoned judgment out of the equation.

People wince at the image of that sweet couple in their canoe, celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with a glass of wine, and ending up in the clink.

It’s too easy to envision the trouble with this blanket rule; the exceptions, the lack of reasoned judgments and the by-the-book types who feel obligated to crack down on all of us as a matter of principle.

But we also hear the frustration from the people who deal with the ugly underbelly of river boozin.’

Our own Traverse Area Paddle Club has organized more than 50 cleanups on the Pine River alone. They liken the aftermath to “Animal House.”

It’s not all good, clean fun to them. They pick up vast amounts of our litter, rescue the drunken capsized, and have endured unfriendly, obnoxious partiers who care not a whit about the resource — they’re entitled to their good time, damn the consequences.

We’d like to float an alternative, middle of the river approach: Enforce existing nuisance rules for trespassing, urinating, littering, public drunkeness and underage drinking.

We realize this is easy to say, and not easy to do given the level of law enforcement staffing compared to these big party summer weekends.

We know it’s a federal issue, but we have some good examples of programs that work on the state organization and nonprofit level. The DNR’s Riverwatch (to prevent salmon snagging during the aggressive fishing crush at Tippy Dam), or Sturgeon for Tomorrow’s camping weekends, have found ways to use volunteer patrols — who don’t confront but only report — to be the eyes for the experts.

We think only law enforcement trained in de-escalation should interact with the problematic public.

Volunteers could instead ask paddlers for returnables and trash at pressure points in the river as a service to paddlers; the returnable money used for walkie-talkies, garbage bags and cool T-shirts.

If that doesn’t cover it, maybe beef up the current watercraft permit program on the Pine or institute others on the Manistee and Au Sable.

We believe that people like to be a part of the solution — especially when it’s easy enough to paddle over to a friendly, helpful person who takes your garbage, and could impart some interpretive information about the resource they share.

Our rivers aren’t dumping grounds, port-a-potties or party highways. They’re shared, they’re important and they can be dangerous to drunk people and drunk people can be dangerous to them and on them.

But we can learn lessons from our rivers, too, and try to go with the flow instead of throwing up obstructions.

— Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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