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Labor Day holiday: Some will venture out on lake, roads
Gainesville Marina & Boat Sales rigger Rick Huscusson gases up a company boat Thursday at the marina. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
Labor Day traditionally is considered the last hurrah of summer, one final chance for a cookout or a swim before the season gives way to autumn.

But it’s not clear how many people will be in the mood to celebrate this year.

Mark Williams, chief park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Buford Dam, said visitation at Lake Lanier has been way down this summer, due both to the economy and the drought.

"Attendance at day-use parks has been about 60 percent of normal," he said. "Camping was 80 percent, and boating has been only 25 percent of normal all summer."

There’s an obvious explanation for the lack of boaters. Record low lake levels have restricted public access to all but a few boat ramps.

But this week’s heavy rains from Tropical Storm Fay brought a holiday gift for boaters.

"A week ago, we had only three boat ramps open," Williams said. "Now we have 10."

From Monday through Thursday afternoon, Lanier’s level rose almost 2.5 feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Web site, and is still rising. That’s still about 15 feet below normal full pool. But at least some of the hazards that had been protruding from the lake’s surface now are underwater again, making boating a little easier.

And with more boat ramps open, there will be less traffic congestion at corps parks, and people will be able to get their boats in and out of the water faster.

Gainesville Marina & Boat Sales owner Philip Burton said he’s thrilled about the change in the lake level.

"It’s a blessing for us. I haven’t seen it rain like that in years," he said. "This is a great way to kick off the holiday weekend, and it’s raising everyone’s spirits."

Burton said business has been slow at his marina. "This summer has been a challenge, but you’re still seeing hard-core boaters," he said. "People are still coming out. They’re just being cautious and careful."

Melissa Cummings, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said caution is warranted.

"Despite the fact that the lake has gone up a bit, low water is still a concern, and people need to be aware of objects below the surface," she said.

Williams said the extra 2 feet of water should not give anyone a false sense of security. "People still need to use an extreme amount of caution when boating," he said. "And we don’t recommend boating at all at night."

All of the corps’ designated swimming areas are dry, and though swimming is allowed anywhere in the lake, Williams said if people choose to swim, everyone should wear a life jacket. "That includes both children and adults," he said.

Five people have drowned so far this year in Lanier, in addition to four boating fatalities. The most recent incident occurred Aug. 20, when a 30-year-old man drowned near West Bank Park in Forsyth County.

Drownings this year have tended to follow a familiar pattern. Because there are no designated swimming areas available, people are swimming in parts of the lake where the bottom drops off sharply. Victims typically drown when they’re wading in a shallow area and suddenly slip into a deeper part of the lake.

Swimmers and boaters this weekend also will need to watch out for things floating in Lanier, according to Burton.

"There will be an excess amount of debris in the lake because there was so much inflow, and the water may be a little muddy," he said.

Burton speculates that a number of people will be drawn to the lake this weekend out of sheer curiosity.

"I think you’ll have a lot of people coming out just to see what the lake is doing, since they’ve heard about how much rain we were getting," he said.

Williams said he expects a decent amount of visitors, but not massive crowds.

"Labor Day is not a big holiday for us," he said. "It’s comparable to a regular busy summer weekend."

He said the corps’ campgrounds on Lanier are about 90 percent booked, but there still are sites available for walk-ins. "That wouldn’t be true on Memorial Day or July Fourth, when we’re completely booked up in advance," he said.

Some people may just choose to hang out in their backyards this weekend. Garrett Townsend, district manager for AAA Auto Club South, said fewer people are saying they plan to drive more than 50 miles from home during the Labor Day weekend.

"We’re expecting travel in the Southeast to be down slightly (compared to previous Labor Day weekends)," he said, "even though gas prices have fallen significantly from where they were in July."

The Georgia State Patrol is predicting that during the holiday travel period, which begins at 6 tonight and ends at midnight on Labor Day, there will be 1,898 traffic accidents across the state, resulting in 901 injuries and 16 deaths.

During the same 78-hour period last year, there were 2,150 wrecks with 1,048 injuries and 12 deaths.

Col. Bill Hitchens, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, has predicted traffic this weekend will be heavier than it was during the Memorial Day or July Fourth weekends. But he said the increase in traffic won’t necessarily be attributable to the Labor Day holiday.

"This is the first weekend for the regular season high school and college football games," he said.

Jim Shuler, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said law enforcement agencies across the state will be stepping up patrols and setting up sobriety checkpoints, on the lookout for drivers violating Georgia’s DUI laws.

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