Patrolling ever-busier Gardner Lake in Salem

Montville Police Officer Gregg Jacobson, left, hands a boating brochure to Dick Bastis of Salem during a patrol of Gardner Lake on Sunday.
Montville Police Officer Gregg Jacobson, left, hands a boating brochure to Dick Bastis of Salem during a patrol of Gardner Lake on Sunday.

The combination of the incessant heat and the upgraded state boat launch has brought more people to Gardner Lake State Park to cool off either on or by the water.

With each week's attendance increasing, particularly on the weekends, the safety and health of the lake has become more of an issue for those who patrol and oversee the 529-acre body of water.

"Everyone has a right to be out there but … it all comes back to safety on the lake and the health of the lake," Gardner Lake Authority member Bob Neddo said Sunday.

Regular water quality tests are taken to ensure the health of the lake. The authority also tries to maintain an ongoing weed control regimen to keep the lake from being choked by aquatic vegetation.

When it comes to safety, the authority contracts with the Montville police department's marine unit to patrol the lake from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

"It's a great place to go boating, just do it safely," said Officer Gregg Jacobson, a 12-year veteran of the unit.

Neddo said while the Montville police presence is welcome, the authority would like to have a greater state Department of Environmental Protection presence at the lake to oversee the safety of its users and improve communication between the municipal and state entities.

Named after the family that originally owned the majority of the land around it, Gardner Lake spans the towns of Montville, Salem and Bozrah. Four campgrounds and one marina are situated along the shore, along with dozens of private homes and the St. Thomas More School.

On Sunday, boats - from sailboats and kayaks to personal water crafts and motorboats - zigzagged across the water, with water skiers or tubers skidding across the surface.

Occasionally, a boat moored in the middle of the lake with its occupants swimming around the vessel, but more often swimmers stuck to the shoreline or the designated area near the boat launch.

Michelle Solsky of Salem stood on the concrete dock with her daughter Alexis, 10, and friend Ashley Anderson, 9, watching the commotion and waiting for their boat to be prepped and ready to enter the water.

Solsky said the family is out on the lake at least three or four times a week tubing and swimming. The attraction is the lake's cleanliness and overall safety.

"During the week, it's much calmer and less crowded," Solsky said.

Carrie Fisher of Waterford said the lake provides the opportunity for a mini-vacation during the week.

"It's beautiful and peaceful," Fisher said as she waited with the Flaherty family of Norwich for the group's tube to be inflated.

The state spent nearly $1 million on the boat launch in 2008, upgrading the gravel boat launch area to include a paved surface with three lots and 54 spaces. Many people at the lake Sunday commented that since then, water traffic and beach usage has increased.

"When it's crowded like this, it makes it a little nerve-racking to have my daughter at the back of the boat tubing," Solsky said.

"We always make sure we have a spotter because the other boats might not see us," Alexis quickly added.

Jack Flaherty said this was the first time his family visited Gardner Lake. Normally, they boat on Pachaug Pond in Voluntown, where it isn't as busy but there isn't as much usable water.

A fishing tournament was held earlier Sunday morning, and as afternoon boaters waited to unload their vessels, those from the tournament - the DEP stocks the lake with walleye to add to the bull head and catfish population - waited in the long line of vehicles to retrieve their boats from the water.

Canoeists, kayakers and small sailboats also lingered near the water's edge.

Out on the water, the Montville marine unit circled the lake looking for violations and safety hazards and conducting checks.

From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the Montville police department's marine unit patrols the lake, averaging about three patrols a week during various times.

In 2009, the officers stopped 170 boats, boarding 124 of them, meaning everything from physically going onto the vessel to doing a visual inspection. The unit was on the lake for 32 patrols that year.

Sunday was the unit's 15th of the 2010 season, and by midday, they had issued one infraction for allowing a child to sit in front of the driver of a personal water craft while he was operating the vessel.

Seasonal Salem resident Dick Bastis said the patrols are appreciated.

"When people see the red shirts on the lake, they change," Bastis said as he floated on his personal water craft alongside the police patrol boat to ask about new boat registration requirements. "They're doin' a good job."

Officers David Rowley, a 23-year member of the marine unit, and Jacobson stopped a Jet Ski north of Minnie Island to confirm that the driver had the appropriate certification. The two teenagers aboard were cleared and told the officers that they were in the area hoping to dive down and find the house that sank to the bottom of the lake during the winter of 1895 when its owner tried to move it across the ice.

Neddo said most of the Gardner Lake Authority's $15,000 to $20,000 annual budget is used to pay for police patrols during the summer. While they're in the water, the patrols help. When they're out, well, there are good and bad days, Neddo said.

Bastis and Neddo said that night, normally around sunset, tends to be the time when boaters go out for a "last hurrah."

Neddo said the authority would like to see the state DEP add to the Montville police patrol and become more active in supervising safety on the lake and enforcing the rules.

"The main feeling about the new ramp and beach is that they're very nice, but there's no supervision over there, and at times we don't see much enforcement coming from the DEP," Neddo said.

A DEP spokesman said late Sunday that the department is eager to work with local officials to do whatever is possible to ensure the safety of boaters.

The Gardner Lake Authority met earlier this month with an official from the DEP and two local state legislators to discuss what could be done to better control access to the lake to improve safety.

Ideas considered included setting speed limits on the water - already people are not supposed to travel faster than 6 miles per hour between sunset and 8 a.m. - and possibly charge for access to the parking area and boat launch.

In the meantime, people who use the lake regularly and those who oversee the water safety and health stressed the need for people to remain vigilant and respectful.

"Enjoy, have fun, but just be safe doing it so we don't have to come out and rescue you," Jacobson said after ending his shift.

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Montville Police part-time boating officers Mark Majewski, left, and Dave Rowley patrol Gardner Lake on Sunday.
Montville Police part-time boating officers Mark Majewski, left, and Dave Rowley patrol Gardner Lake on Sunday.

Fun Facts about Gardner Lake:

54 = number of parking spaces at state boat launch

6 miles per hour = the maximum boat speed on the lake from sunset until 8 a.m.

14 feet = average depth of lake

529 acres = surface area of lake

39 feet = deepest area of lake

0.88 acres = Minnie Island State Park, Connecticut's smallest state park is in the middle of Gardner Lake

Source: State of Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection

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