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Eyes on the lake
All in a day's work for DNR officers
DNR boating 1 es
John Atkinson chats with Department of Natural Resources Sgt. Lee Brown and Ranger 1st Class Mark Stephens during a recent afternoon on Lake Lanier. The DNR is bracing for large crowds on the lake over the Fourth of July weekend. - photo by Emily Saunders

DNR interview 7-2-08 BH

DNR Officers Lee Brown and Mark Stephens talk about working a recent drowning case on Lake Lanier

Lee Brown and Mark Stephens work a sun-soaked, fresh-air-breathing, ain't-afraid-to-get-dirty country boy's dream job.

As Wildlife Conservation officers or "game wardens," they might start out a day chasing cheating trout fishermen up a muddy riverbank.

Then they might load up a four-wheeler in a big green Georgia Department of Natural Resources Ford F150 pickup and tear out through the back roads - or what's left of them.

And by late afternoon, they might be so lucky as to board a boat and cruise around Lake Lanier, checking licenses, life jackets, and handing out a fishing tip or two.

"We're police officers out here on the water," Brown said on a recent afternoon as he and Stephens left Bald Ridge Marina on a routine patrol.

"We're not bad guys. We're here to help."

Sgt. Brown and Ranger F.C. Stephens will be among five or six DNR patrols covering the 38,000-acre lake this Fourth of July holiday. Local authorities from Forsyth, Hall and Gwinnett counties also will be on patrol.

This will be Stephens' third summer on Lanier and Brown's second. It's a great big job on a great big lake. But rest assured these boys can handle it.

"If somebody's lost on the lake, Mark's the first one who gets the call," Brown said. "We know the woods. We know the waters."

Bill Faw, 67, of Cumming, was fishing with son Dave and springer spaniel Millie, when Brown and Stephens pulled up to his port side.

"I been fishing on this lake for over 30 years, living up here," Faw told the game wardens. "And y'all are the first ones that have ever talked to me."

After checking Faw's boat for life jackets and a fire extinguisher, they gave him some insider fishing tips and told him game wardens are actually a sign of good luck.

And though they issued his son a citation for fishing without a license, they let him keep fishing the rest of the day. They told him to just be sure and have a license before he wet a line another day. Then they parted ways with a friendly wave.

Meetings like that happen all of the time, said Stephens, especially in the more suburbanized areas around the lake.

"A lot of times I encounter people who say, 'What are you doing here? Hey, the game warden is checking me in Gwinnett County? Of all places.'"

But on the Forsyth County side, sometimes it's still like the old days. About 20 minutes after their first stop, Brown and Stephens ran up on John Atkinson riding a tube behind a boat.

"I got lifted up about two foot in the air awhile ago," Atkinson said, half out of breath. "It's pretty fun."

Then he climbed aboard the boat while Stephens was conducting the stop, took a Winston 100 from a soft pack, lit it and gave Brown a good hard look.

"Aw, I know you," he said. "I thought you was familiar when you pulled up. Isn't that weird as hell?"

Turned out that Atkinson and Brown are neighbors. Better yet, they live in the same Forsyth County subdivision.

This year, with the lake down about 16 feet below full pool, Brown and Stephens caution neighbors and strangers alike to watch out for low spots, sandbars, protruding old treetops, rooftops, racetracks and whatever else lies under the lake's oak leaf green surface.

"You can be going along, people in the boat, and there's trees sticking up," Brown said. "They could be in deep water and then all of a sudden they could be in two foot of water."

The last thing they want to do is work another drowning case. They've already worked two this year.

For people who venture out on the lake this holiday weekend, and there's liable to be plenty, just like any other day or night, the rangers stress the simple things.

Slow down. If you're going to fish, get your license. And everybody from infants to older folks must have a life jacket.

The latter is a lesson brothers Brian and Chris Glass learned the hard way. They had their life jackets, they said; they swore they did. They just left them in their van.

"They're there, man. I mean, they really are," Chris Glass said. "We just didn't grab 'em."

"You got to have a life jacket to wear for each person on board," Brown said. "That's a huge safety violation."

"I know it sounds whatever, like a cliché," Glass continued. "But I'm not kidding you, man, we always bring them out here. We really and truly do."

"Life jackets are very serious," Brown told the brothers. "Because if somebody was to come by and hit you or you get swamped there's nothing in here for you to hang on to that'll help you stay afloat. Especially with the lake down low like it is.

"When we were coming up through the lake we saw a muddy spot out through the middle. You could hit something. In this boat here, if you hit something, where are you gonna go?"

A couple of minutes later, Stephens finished filling out the ticket.

"OK, Chris," he said. "I gave you a ticket for operating a vessel without life jackets. As my partner said, it's a huge violation. We've already had one fatality this year because a person wasn't wearing a life jacket."

They chatted for about a minute and just as nicely as he could, Brown told the brothers exactly what he wanted them to do.

"If y'all would," he said, "reel your poles up and go straight to your van and get your life jackets. Then you can come back out."

"We're headed straight there now, man," Brian Glass said.

And as the rangers pulled away, the brothers were steady reeling.