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Visitors crowd Lake Lanier over Labor Day weekend
25-year-old Doraville man drowns swimming to island
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Jack Spencer, right, pulls his boat out of Lake Lanier for the season on Monday afternoon because the lake level has gotten so low. Stacey Kenyon, in the boat, signals that the boat is lined up with the trailer. - photo by J. Bryan Stiles

Boaters and law enforcement took to the lake in droves over the mostly quiet holiday weekend, traditionally marking the end of the summer season for lake-goers.

And, officials said, the traffic on Lanier Saturday and Sunday was likely greater than Labor Day weekends in the past.

But the fun was dampened at Van Pugh Park North when a 25-year-old Doraville man drowned trying to swim to an island.

For rangers working the long weekend, the expectation was that crowds might be smaller than usual.

“Usually (after) Labor Day weekend it kind of dies off,” said Mark Stephens, a ranger with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “You have football games going on, kids are back in school, people have got their fill of the lake and (are) kind of doing something else. The last two days that I’ve worked — Saturday and Sunday — it’s been the most steady that I’ve ever seen in my career on Lanier.”

But Stephens, who spent Monday “on the hill” — patrolling wildlife areas for the opening of hunting season — said the call volume over the weekend was not any different from previous weeks.

“We haven’t changed anything that we do as far as that goes,” said Stephens. “The traffic has always been there — it’s Lanier. It comes with it. It’s probably one of the most used lakes in the Southeastern United States, I would say.”

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 6.5 million people have visited Lanier so far this year. The Corps estimates the lake area receives about 7.5 million visitors annually.

Stephens said this is the last weekend rangers will be required to be on the water, but there will likely be a law enforcement presence in the weeks ahead.

“We’ll still continue to get out,” said Stephens. “It’s not a mandatory thing, but I’m not above getting out there during the week or on the weekend. As long as the traffic is there, more than likely we’re going to be there.”

Over the holiday weekend there was two confirmed drownings statewide.

On Lake Lanier, the Hall County marine rescue team recovered the body of 25-year-old Kyle Miller of Doraville, who drowned in the area of Van Pugh Park North Monday afternoon.

According to David Kimbrell, Hall County Fire Chief, the man was swimming to an island with some friends when he went missing.

The other drowning happened on the Ogeechee River in Screven County, where a 53-year-old man drowned while swimming in the river.

Stephens said there were no major issues Saturday or Sunday. The Department of Natural Resources reported four boating incidents on Lanier and four minor injuries.

But some boaters were surprised with how open the water was on Monday, specifically on the north end of the lake.

Sam Harris and James Wiley visited Lanier Monday to spend the morning fishing. They were actually planning on getting off the water before lunch, but ended up fishing until around 2 p.m. because of how light the traffic was in the area of Laurel Park.

“On a holiday weekend, I’ve never seen it like this,” said Harris. “It’s great for us. But, if you go down on the other end of the lake, it’s a different story. That’s why we came up here.”

“We thought we’d be off the water by 11 (a.m.),” said Wiley. “I told (Harris) about 10:30 (a.m.) that this was nuts. There’s no body up here. If we didn’t have plans this afternoon, we’d probably still be out there.”

And, unlike many who dock their boats for the fall and winter months, Harris and Wiley are just getting warmed up on the lake.

“It’s kind of just the opposite,” said Harris. “This is when we start going full-force. Most of the boaters will start clearing out and this is usually when the fishing starts picking up.”

But for others, Labor Day does mark the end of a season.

Jack Spencer, who lives on the lake, was putting his pontoon boat on the trailer Monday afternoon. He said it won’t go back in the water until next year.

He too was surprised by the light traffic near his home Monday.

“Usually Labor Day is pretty busy — it’s the last big day of the year,” said Spencer. “It may be that it’s different on the south end of the lake, but there just doesn’t appear to be many up here today.”

His daughter, Stacy Kenyon, said she was out with her son earlier in the day and was “shocked” by the amount of traffic.

“We saw two boats,” she said. “We were out for 20 minutes just kind of tooling around and I was like: ‘This is Labor Day and nobody’s here.’ I was shocked.”

And some, like Stephens, are looking forward to lighter days on Lanier, given the amount of attention the lake’s received over the summer.

“We’ve had more attention on the lake as far as fatalities go,” he said. “Last year, believe it or not, was worse than this year. We’ve had a lot more higher profile incidents that’s taken place this year, and it is a little bit of a sigh of relief to get off the lake this year and switch gears — it can be overwhelming in that regard.”

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