By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
Twenty feet makes a big difference.
Visitors to Lake Cumberland have by now grown accustomed to a lake level of about 680 feet about sea level, about 40 feet less than what was normal before repairs started on the ailing Wolf Creek Dam.
However, just in time for this weekend’s Memorial Day throng — sort of the annual kick-off to the summer tourism season — things are back a little closer to normal. The waters are about 20 feet higher than they have been for the last six years, and while that means a fuller, more fun Lake Cumberland, it does also present certain problems for lakegoers.
Tiger Robinson, Pulaski County Public Safety Director, warns that what’s grown up while the lake was down is something to watch for all around.
“Lots of people used to jump (their boats), but we have trees growing in the water now,” said Robinson, who pointed out that areas left uncovered by water over the last few years have seen trees sprout up.
“Now that the water’s up, the trees are covered up,” said Robinson. “You can’t see them (right away).”
Robinson advised lakegoers to “swim around a little bit” before just jumping into the water, not knowing for sure what’s underneath the surface. A surprise landing on tree branches or sharp limbs could cause significant physical harm.
“When you pull up into the cover, you think the water’s 20 feet deep, but there may be a tree in the middle of it,” he said. “Be conscious about these things when you’re jumping in and diving in.”
It’s not just whole trees that can cause problems either. The rising waters have caused stray pieces of wood and other items that were on shore to float out into the middle of the lake.
“There’s a lot of debris right now,” said Robinson. “When you’re going down the lake, watch out for logs, things like that. They’ve washed off the banks and come back up again.”
The debris can cause problems when swimming or boating, when one unknowingly comes across an obstacle in their path. This can lead to physical harm or even wrecking one’s watercraft.
Another change from years past: alcohol. Though boaters have always been able to bring in adult beverages from out of town — and have done so — such products are more readily available than ever with Somerset having gone “wet” over the last year.
The rules for operating a boat are the same as in a car: don’t drink and drive. Robinson noted that drinking causes the same impaired judgment problems when behind the controls of a watercraft as on the road.
“A lot of our (boating) accidents that we get into in the area are due to alcohol,” he said. “I’m sure the water patrol will be beefing up this year with the water being back up. ... They’ll give you a tick and take you to jail (for operating a boat under the influence).”
More docks are expected to be open now with the higher lake levels, said Robinson, with some areas that may be less familiar to lake users who hadn’t been able to access those areas in the recent past. As such, Robinson warned to keep a careful out for traffic around the launching point, and any children that may be running around of jumping out of cars.
And of course, the tried-and-true piece of boating safety advice — wear your lifejackets.
“Especially small children,” said Robinson, noting the importance of taking care of little ones first — plus, it’s the law.
U.S. Coast Guard statistic have shown in recent years that almost 90 percent of boats who drowned were not wearing life jackets at the time of the incident. Wearing a life jacket or flotation device helps you keep your head above water so you can breath in the event that your boat wreck or you’re unable to swim for some reason.
“We want everybody to enjoy the lake,” said Robinson. “We don’t want anybody to get hurt.”