Unique partnership rises from Columbia River
This past Memorial Day weekend while patrolling the Columbia River, the local Coast Guard Auxiliary came upon a 16-year-old girl lying face down in the sand at Quilomene Sand Dune.
Stranded by her friends, she had been lying there for more than an hour, yet no one helped the unconscious teenager, said Kathleen Goodwin, an auxiliary member who was on the call that day.
The auxiliary was able to quickly load the girl into its boat, taking her back across the water to the Quilomene Yacht Club at Sunland Estates, where an ambulance was waiting to transport her to the hospital.
The next day, the Quincy teenager, back on her feet, thanked the auxiliary for saving her life, said Goodwin.
It was a special day for not only the teen, who marked her 17th birthday that very day, but also for the auxiliary.
“We just feel very good in our hearts about what we do,” said Goodwin.
The teenager was one of two people delivered safely to emergency personnel over the holiday weekend by the auxiliary, a volunteer group working with the Grant County Sheriff’s Office that has been stationed at Sunland Estates every Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend for the past seven years.
The partnership formed by the auxiliary, the sheriff’s office and the Quilomene Yacht Club is a unique one that’s unlike any other on the Columbia River, say representatives of all three organizations.
And, more importantly, it’s a partnership that’s about saving lives.
“If we can just save one life, it’s all worth it,” Goodwin said.
Sunland Estates is a shoreline community built east of Interstate 90 along the east bank of the Columbia River. The development includes 549 privately owned lots, most of which are owned by Seattle families looking to enjoy the 320 days of sunshine Sunland Estates promises most years, said Karen Penix, a realtor and year-round resident there.
Karen and her husband, Gene Penix, purchased property in Sunland Estates in 1979. At the time, their young family was one of only a handful of families occupying the scrubland. Their neighbors were a couple of travel trailers and hunting and fishing cabins.
Today, while only about 20 families call the place home year round, the population of Sunland Estates booms during the summer boating season. To the north and south of Sunland, a similar population explosion is seen at Desert Aire and Crescent Bar.
This population growth — sparked by people eager to spend their days on the water — makes for a busy season on the river between Wanapum and Rock Island dams.
It’s the job of the Grant County Sheriff’s Office’s Marine Patrol to monitor the Columbia River, along with 138 other bodies of water across the county. The unit has two full-time marine deputies and another 12 officers who are trained in marine patrol.
The unit also has two vessels and four personal water crafts to cover those 139 bodies of water, said Deputy Mike Earney, one of the full-time deputies in the marine patrol.
“It isn’t enough,” Earney said. “We don’t have enough people.”
That’s where the auxiliary comes in.
In 1939, Congress established a U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. Ten years later, it was renamed the Coast Guard Auxiliary. There are about 30,000 volunteers across the country and more than 1,300 in District 13, which covers Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, said Goodwin, the district’s chief of staff.
The auxiliary’s volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds; however, most are retired, said Goodwin. This past Memorial Day weekend, seven auxiliary volunteers traveled to Sunland Estates from the Tri-Cities, Yakima, Spokane and Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, to patrol the water in three boats, she said.
The auxiliary has no law enforcement authority. Members train in such areas as navigation, team coordination, radio communications and first aid. They must complete 12 hours of on-the-water training annually, and every three years they must be re-certified, Goodwin said.
The auxiliary patrols the water, performs vessel safety checks, provides search and rescue services, and educates people about boating safety. As volunteers, members are not paid and they use their own boats; however, they are reimbursed for the gas used by the boats, Goodwin said.
Over the years, the unit at Sunland Estates has come upon sinking vessels, dangerously overloaded boats, boat groundings and boats dead in the water, Goodwin said. Other times, they find people stranded along the shoreline who need a ride back to where they are staying, Goodwin said. Many end up stranded at the Quilomene Sand Bar, she added.
This past Memorial Day weekend, the auxiliary towed six boats and assisted 46 people, Goodwin said. In seven years, it has assisted 250 people and saved $800,000 in property losses, she said.
Since 2007, the auxiliary has played a major role in ensuring the public’s safety on those two busy weekends a year, Earney said. If it wasn’t for the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the sheriff’s office wouldn’t be able to do much enforcement those two weekends every year because the marine patrol is too busy responding to emergencies, he said.
The third leg of this unique stool are the folks at the Quilomene Yacht Club at Sunland Estates, which pulled the sheriff’s office and auxiliary together and has served as a host to both.
Gene Penix sees Sunland Estates as the supportive body to the auxiliary, sheriff’s office and the area’s emergency personnel. Sunland Estates is located in a unique position along the river where it can help out the efforts of the sheriff’s office and the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Gene said.
“It’s just too unique to not have developed this public service,” he said.
The yacht club has opened up its docks to the two groups, designating four spaces to the auxiliary and the marine patrol. Members of the yacht club also paid to widen the docks and put in ADA-approved ramps, making it easier to transport people off the water into a waiting ambulance.
Near the docks, the sheriff’s office ran a line and an antenna up a nearby pole so the auxiliary can communicate by two-way radio from Wanapum Dam down past Crescent Bar.
The yacht club also serves as the staging area for the auxiliary. Some volunteers camp at the club while others stay with Karen and Gene, who live adjacent to the club.
“Their like family now, after eight years,” Karen said of the auxiliary.
“We started from knowing nothing to being able to host genuine authority and trained personnel,” Gene added.
Sunland Estates is one of the best partnerships the sheriff’s office has in a shoreline community, Earney said. The people there make themselves available to the sheriff’s office and try to assist them in their mission of keeping the river safe, he said.
“Their whole message is that they just want a safe operation down there,” Earney said of the Quilomene Yacht Club.
From the unique partnership formed at Sunland Estates, both Goodwin and Earney said they are seeing an impact out on the river. The sheriff’s office is receiving less calls for assistance from the general public during those two busy weekends, Earney said.
And, on the auxiliary’s end, volunteers are seeing better educated boaters on the water, Goodwin said.
This past Memorial Day weekend, there wasn’t one fatality on the river or in a county’s lake.
“I hope that’s a sign that what we’re doing is working,” Earney said.
— By Jill FitzSimmons, firstname.lastname@example.org