Outdoors Issue 2019: How to Stay Safe on the Water

Kalispell branch of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary does its part in keeping Flathead Lake safe

By Justin Franz
A United States Coast Guard Auxiliary patrol boat cruises across Flathead Lake near Melita Island on June 25, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

With 197 square miles of water, 161 miles of shoreline and an average depth of 164.7 feet, there is no doubt that Flathead Lake is a big lake. In fact, it’s the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. On average, it’s also 7 inches deeper than the Persian Gulf.

Anyone who has spent time on the lake, either on the shore or in a boat, could tell you that it can also feel like a rough and wild ocean within a moment’s notice when a storm rolls in. It’s because of that unpredictability that people should be especially vigilant while boating on the lake, said Chris Roberts and Kyle Boyce, members of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary’s Kalispell Flotilla.

Roberts said people are usually surprised to learn that the Coast Guard has a presence in Montana. The Auxiliary has been around since 1939 and has 26,000 members in 825 local units across the country, including three flotillas in Montana. Roberts, 71, and Boyce, 72, who is the Kalispell Flotilla commander, are volunteers. The Kalispell Flotilla has about a half-dozen members spread between Kalispell and Missoula. The other Montana flotillas are based in Helena and Billings.

“Our entire purpose is to save lives,” Roberts said. “We want to create an awareness that the Coast Guard does exist in Montana.”

The core mission of the Auxiliary is to educate the public about how to be safe on the water. Last week, that meant leading boater-safety courses on Melita Island, where the Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) Montana Council runs summer camp. Flotilla members also do boat inspections and lake patrols. They have no law-enforcement abilities so they can’t write tickets or board another person’s boat, but they can recommend safe practices and can call authorities if they see particularly worrisome behavior. They can also aid in search-and-rescue missions on the lake.

After leading the boater-safety class on Melita Island last week, Boyce and Roberts began patrolling the south end of the lake. Boyce called into the Coast Guard base in Seattle to let them know they were on the water. Boyce’s boat is outfitted with extra lifejackets, towropes to help disabled boats, a marine radio and other equipment they might need while on the water. Because it was a Tuesday in June, there were few boaters on the lake, so Boyce and Roberts worked with some of the BSA staff on Melita Island on man-overboard drills and towing procedures.

Roberts, who is retired, said he views being a member of the flotilla as a great way to give back to the community and ensure that people stay safe on the water, although that’s not the only benefit.

“You also get to go boating!” he said.

The Kalispell Flotilla is always looking for new members. Roberts said anyone interested in joining can call him at (406) 549-3090 or email him at [email protected].