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By Vicki Gerdes. Forum News Service, Published June 11 2013

Sheriff cracking down on underage drinkers along Otter Tail River

Detroit Lakes, Minn. - The Otter Tail tubing tradition has often included enjoying a few “adult” beverages along the way, not to mention stopping to party at two or three favorite gathering spots during the trip.

But tubers beware: The Becker County Sheriff’s Department will be cracking down on out-of-control drinking and partying by tubers along the river route this summer, with a particular emphasis on controlling underage alcohol consumption.

“We’re working closely with the two tubing companies out there,” said Sheriff Kelly Shannon, noting that the owners of both businesses are cooperating with law enforcement’s efforts to curb underage drinkers.

“They realize what the concern is, because they see it out there, too,” he said. “They see its costs (i.e., medical and safety issues), and they’re concerned, too.”

“I know it’s going to upset a lot of people, but it (teenage drinking) needs to be addressed,” said Cathy Pihlaja, owner of Charlie’s Ottertail Tubing. “It’s gotten out of hand.”

She said Charlie’s would follow the Sheriff’s Department’s recommendations to use different colored wristbands to identify tubers who are of legal drinking age, and those who are not.

Tubers will be asked to produce proof of identification before setting off on the river, at which time they will be issued wristbands of the appropriate color.

“We will be carding people,” Pihlaja said.

Roger Klemm of K & K Tubing, however, said he isn’t so sure the wristband system is the best way to handle the issue and hasn’t decided yet whether he will be using it.

He hopes to decide by late this week.

Klemm said he’s concerned about the wristband system because once people set off down the river, he has no control over whether they choose to remove the wristbands or exchange them with others in their party.

“When they come off the bottom of the river at the end of the trip, what happens if they don’t have a wristband?” Klemm asked. “Are we going to be held liable for that?”

He prefers to card only those who actually bring a cooler of alcoholic beverages with them and make that person responsible for ensuring others in their party are not drinking if they are underage.

People who bring coolers with them need to produce identification anyway, because they are asked to count the number of cans and plastic bottles they have with them (glass bottles are not allowed) and produce the same number of containers – full or empty – at the end of the river trip.

In order to ensure this, the person in charge of the cooler is asked to leave a deposit – if the number of cans and bottles doesn’t add up at the end of the trip, they lose that deposit.

This policy was introduced several years ago to curb littering along the river. A county ordinance was enacted to enforce the new policy.

Shannon said the wristband system is entirely voluntary on the tubing companies’ behalf.

“We’re not going to force them,” he said. “We’re asking them to do it.”

Shannon also noted it is not his department’s intent to stop tubers from enjoying their time on the river.

“We want people to have a good time,” he said. “But we don’t want them getting hurt. It’s a balancing act.”

Excessive drinking can lead to medical issues, particularly among teens who have not experienced the effects of alcohol before and don’t know their own physical limitations, Shannon noted.

He said is a major reason why his department will have a greater presence on the river this year.

Shannon said officers will also patrol near the so-called “party spots” along the river, and ask any crowds that develop to disburse and move on – “or they could possibly be cited for unlawful assembly.”

There also will be an increased law enforcement presence on the roads near the tubing route, to catch people who are driving under the influence.

Pihlaja is glad to see the changes.

“I think it’s something that was needed,” she said. “Underage drinking is underage drinking. You can’t go to a bar or the beach or WE Fest and drink if you’re underage, it’s against the law. So what makes people think they can come here (to the river) and do it?”