This 4th of July, be careful on the water!

From the DMN

LEWISVILLE – Eager to witness mayhem on the lake, I did not have long to wait. Our boat, piloted by game warden Chip Daigle, hadn’t even cleared the marina when a Jet Ski blasted across our path at full throttle, its white-crested wake smacking our hull like a giant fist.

Daigle hit his siren and ordered the driver to pull alongside.

“Don’t you see where it says ‘no wake zone’?” asked Daigle, pointing to a large sign fixed to a buoy the man had just passed.

“Huh?” the man said, puzzled. Daigle sighed.

“Do you know what ‘no wake zone’ means?” he continued patiently.

“Unh-uh.”

“Do you know what a wake is?”

“No.”

This brief exchange cast a little beam of understanding into why Lewisville Lake, Denton County’s sprawling reservoir, labors under a bit of an unsavory reputation.

Last summer, four people drowned there over the Fourth of July weekend alone; there have already been two drownings this season. Two days before my visit last weekend, Daigle had pulled an exhausting all-night shift, scanning the lake with sonar in search of the body of a 35-year-old boater who jumped in for a swim and never came back up.

Still, Daigle thinks all this Lake of Death business is overstated, largely a result of the media latching on to previous drownings and maintaining a constant incident vigil.

“Once you get that stigma, any death gets media attention,” he said, expertly heading toward the vast lake’s broad midsection.

Lake of Fools might hit a little closer to the target.

Not everybody, of course – plenty of people know what they’re doing, wear their life jackets and adhere to basic tenets of good water sense.

But a big lake with instant freeway access from a major urban center is going to attract big crowds – frantic, party-crazed, eager-to-have-fun crowds. Some of them inevitably make one or both of two key errors: They don’t wear life jackets, and they get very drunk.

“I’ve seen people pukin’ off the side of their boat, and five minutes later, they’re drinking again,” Daigle said.

Texas Parks and Wildlife has only three game wardens (it hopes to add two more soon) to patrol the 436,000-acre surface; local public safety agencies have to cover the 183 miles of shoreline.

The state doesn’t require a license or training to operate a watercraft (hence the Jet Ski guy, who might never have been on a boat in his life). There’s no law saying you can’t drink and boat, or drink and swim – you’re just not supposed to be visibly intoxicated.

Some of the revelers nonetheless looked pretty juiced when we arrived at Party Cove, the notorious inlet where festive weekend boaters tie up together in a vast, chaotic flotilla.

The idea sounds fun, and on initial examination, it is. Dozens of boats created two huge, bobbing platforms; loud music pounded out of a boom box. Young people in bathing suits sunned themselves or drifted on foam rafts in the water, swilling beer and wine coolers.

After a few minutes, though, the deafening rap music started getting on my nerves. We pulled up alongside the biggest boat, a spectacular cabin cruiser.

The owner, a 62-year-old man, spends every summer weekend at Party Cove. His guests were three extremely beautiful young women whom the man – with much affectionate kissing and fond patting – alternately introduced as his girlfriends and his ex-wives.

This is a common theme at Party Cove: middle-aged men whose fancy boats are magnets for youthful guests.

He seemed like an OK guy, but not every Peter Pan in the Cove is scrupulous about checking IDs. Wardens sometimes find drunken teenagers who report they were invited on a boat ride by someone they had met at a lakefront park or restaurant.

For an open-air party, it seemed unnervingly crowded. Unconcerned, swimmers bobbed while boats churned by just a few feet from their heads.

A young guy in bathing trunks stumbled alongside our Parks and Wildlife boat, fixed us with a glassy stare, said, “I just wanted to thank y’all,” and dived into the water. (“I have no idea what he’s talking about,” Daigle said, shrugging.) A few boats away, a guy stepped up to the stern, turned his back and surreptitiously peed over the side.

A little group of shirtless, tattooed young men clustered in the back of a boat and smoked cigarettes, shooting irritable looks at us: When are the cops leaving?

“When you see what goes on at Party Cove,” Daigle said, “you’re amazed that somebody doesn’t get hurt or killed every day.” I saw his point.

He only arrests the ones so loaded, they’re obviously not safe. A certain amount of toplessness is tolerated, he added, but the bottomless go to jail.

Curious, I asked Daigle – a young guy himself, an ex-football player who obviously likes a good time as much as the next person – does he ever get tired of being the only guy on the lake who’s not there to party?

He laughed. After six summers riding herd on the mayhem on Lewisville Lake, he said, he prefers to vacation in off-the-beaten-path spots that don’t see much action.

“This sometimes gets called a ‘Mardi Gras on the water,’ ” he said. “I’m just trying to enforce the safety regulations.”

As we sped back across the lake to the marina, Daigle said that if I really wanted to see some craziness, I could come back next weekend for the Fourth of July holiday.

No thanks, I said candidly. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but that’s more fun than I can stand.

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