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Millions of visitors every year use 15-lake Chain

Busy botraffic under Grass Lake Bridge south end Grass Lake passing by Antonio's Grill - On The Water. | Michael

Busy boat traffic under the Grass Lake Bridge on the south end of Grass Lake passing by Antonio's Grill - On The Water. | Michael Schmidt~Sun-Times Media

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The Chain O’Lakes

The Chain O’Lakes is made up of three natural lakes — Grass, Marie and Nippersink — and then the Fox River that connects the other nine lakes: Bluff, Fox, Pistakee, Channel, Petite, Catherine, Spring, Dunn’s and Redhead.

Most people do not know of Lake Matthews, Lake Latreur and Lake Jerilyn, which are all near Pistakee Lake and are often mistaken for being part of Pistakee Lake.

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Updated: November 6, 2012 2:04AM

The Fox Waterway Agency has the same problem with drunk boaters that communities have on land when dealing with drunk drivers: The laws are there, but some people ignore them.

Ron Barker is the executive director of the agency that oversees the Chain O’Lakes and Fox River, which is 7,100 acres of water in 15 lakes and 45 miles of river. It is considered the busiest waterway in the nation per acre of water.

“It’s that same percentage. It doesn’t matter what law is on the books, it’s always the same percentage because they think they can get away with it,” he said. “Same as a guy in a car after being in a bar for five hours. The laws are not for him, he’s not intoxicated. It all comes down to education and personal responsibility.”

Oftentimes, there are calls for action after a boating death on the waterway. But any time someone thinks of a solution, other boaters who are affected complain.

After the death of 10-year-old Tony Borcia of Libertyville on Petite Lake on July 28, one boater, Terry Doran of McHenry, wondered why not limit water skiing and tubing to just one lake, like Lake Catherine on the northern end of the waterway system. The youngster was run over in the lake by a speed boat after falling off an inner tube.

“Safety depends on the day. During the week it’s pretty safe; during the weekends it can get pretty dangerous out here,” said Doran, who has been boating on the Chain for about six years.

But Barker said what do officials do when 100 boats are trying to pull skiers or inner tubers in one little area. And don’t think the anglers, who use that lake regularly because it has great fishing, aren’t going to complain. They pay the same user fee and can’t fish because of all the boat traffic.

“Most of the permanent residents go boating during the week or early morning on weekends,” said Barker, who is a 30-year resident on Grass Lake.

“Everyone is looking for something to happen (after the most recent death), but in fairness to the family, this is not the time to have wide-open public hearings out of respect for the family and their grieving. We can have them in the winter time,” he said.

3.5 million visitors

The Fox Agency set a record for number of boat stickers it sold in 1998 at 27,367, which includes all stickers — one-day, 10-day, full-season. Stickers for boats to use the waterways range in price — from $10 to $175 — on a sliding scale.

The agency estimates they get 3.5 million visitors a year, but that includes pleasure boaters, sailboats, anglers, hunters, canoeists and kayakers. Only sailboards don’t need a sticker because they aren’t registered with the state.

“These are public waters of the state and as such are open to all people who want to recreate, whether its fishing, hunting or boating,” Barker said. “There have been discussions about noise, speed limits and the size of boats. They get looked at.

“But I’m going to get a full house in my board room. That’s what happens when you start taking away what they believe are their rights,” he added.

The agency could impose restrictions, but first there has to be public hearing sand then a vote by the six-member elected board. Officials did institute night-time speed limits of 25 mph between sunset and sunrise. There also is a noise ordinance of no more than 90 decibels.

Landowners complained about boaters along the shoreline so a no-wake zone was created 150 yards from shore. Some residents wanted a no-anchor zone there as well because of groups anchoring and partying, “but (the residents) don’t own the water,” Barker said.

What is too fast?

Not that more can’t be done.

In Lake Geneva, Wis., there is a daytime speed limit of 35 mph on weekends and 45 mph on weekdays. Cigarette speed boats 25- to 30-feet long with twin V-8 engines are banned.

The Chain O’Lakes and Fox River are less inviting to speed-boaters because of the noise limitations.

Barker said the speed limit can be very tough to set, asking, what is too fast?

“Most people don’t realize how fast or slow they are going. Most people guess they are going faster,” he said, because boaters are exposed to the air and there is no sense of weight in a boat. Most people are not going that fast.

Baker said at the Blarney Island boat races on Thursday nights most people think the boats are flying, and although there are some that could reach 90 mph, most are in the 60-mph range.

“And that’s not necessarily the cause of fatal accidents,” Barker said.

He points to the number of citations and the deaths on the waterway and says it has stayed pretty steady over the years because of education and law enforcement. When you get a waterway sticker you are urged to have your boat inspected by the Coast Guard. “That way we know they start out safe,” he said.

“Just about every time we have a problem out there, alcohol is involved,” Barker said. “With alcohol, judgment goes down, you lose a couple of seconds of reaction time — and remember these boats don’t have brakes on them.

“When the captain is responsible for his boat, then our lakes are safe. No matter how many laws or rules, you can’t stop someone with drugs or alcohol in their system from getting behind a boat or a car,” he said.

But the agency does plan to do more. He just can’t say right now other than it has to do with boater safety and education.

“I firmly believe we need to promote education to new and existing boaters stronger than we have been,” said Barker.

Boating licenses would have to be enacted on the state or federal level, but attempts at that have not made it out of committee. The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators wrote a model act for mandatory safety education and a license in 2007. It hasn’t gone any further.

“They’ve been trying for years,” Barker said, “but that only applies to future boaters. Everyone else is grandfathered in.”

“Education, education, education. Make people aware of what their responsibilities are once they are behind the ship’s wheel,” he said.

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