OGDEN -- With state budget cuts reducing the number of rangers in state parks, one group of volunteers has stepped in to fill the gap.
The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, with 144 volunteers across the state of Utah, is helping patrol the lakes in search of any swimmers or boaters in peril. Even though the group has been in Utah for more than 50 years, it isn't necessarily a presence at the forefront of people's minds, given that the state doesn't even have a coastline.
"Yes, we are a desert state, but we have approximately 78,000 boats registered in the state of Utah, and we are the only ones in the state who do professional boat-towing services," said Commodore Mike Williams, a member of the Salt Lake flotilla, of the dozen lakes they patrol in Utah. There are four Coast Guard Auxiliary flotillas in Utah: Garden City, Ogden, Salt Lake and Utah County.
Though the patrol units do not perform law enforcement, they otherwise operate the same as Coast Guard vessels, Williams said. Typical rescues include towing boats that have run out of gas or ended up with a dead engine. At other times they are helping swimmers in trouble or aiding people who have fallen overboard.
Their services came in handy a couple of weeks ago when two teenagers were out on Jordanelle Reservoir on rented paddleboards without life jackets. When the wind picked up to 30 mph and the waves were 2 feet high, the teens were pushed out a mile and a half and found themselves in trouble.
"They didn't understand the gravity of the situation," Williams said. "Even though the water is 70 degrees, if you fall in the water and your body temperature drops, you start losing your ability to get out."
Williams and his crew came upon the teens during their typical weekend patrol of the lake and were able to bring them back to shore.
Williams joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary 15 years ago as a way to continue in a life of service.
"There is a camaraderie we have in helping other people, and that's really what it's all about," he said. "The job does consist of hours of boredom sometimes, but it is punctuated with moments of sheer excitement that makes it all worth it."
Mike Thompson, division commander over the Utah flotillas, spends his weekdays working for the state Office of Education and his weekends patrolling lakes in Northern Utah. Still vivid in his mind is the time last year when he discovered a boat on fire. As smoke billowed from the boat, the family, including their 9-month-old baby, was desperate to get off the vessel.
"You get scared for them, because you imagine how nervous they are, and they don't know what is going to happen," Thompson said. "The hardest part is keeping a level head and knowing our priorities. Yes, they are usually in expensive boats, and some people want to save their boats, but our first priority is saving lives. I could care less if a boat is burnt, but once fiberglass catches on fire, it's a volatile chemical fire and the fumes are very toxic."
Ann Zocchi, a member of the Ogden flotilla, joined several years ago with her husband.
"We get to spend time together every weekend and really, what's not to love about being out on the water and helping other people at the same time," she said.
Kevin Woodruff has been a part of the Coast Guard Auxiliary for 15 years. He said he will never forget patrolling Utah Lake during an Iron Man event, when the wind picked up and the swimmers became disoriented because they were in the bottom of the swells.
Woodruff remembers pulling one swimmer out of the water who was struggling. She immediately threw her arms around him, and said, "If you hadn't come, I would have drowned. You gave me hope when I saw you coming up to me."
The group is looking to add more members. For more information, visit http://division7.d11nr.info.