Turns out the first official rescue mission on Lake Nighthorse was for a 3-year-old pup named Otto who went overboard when his owner’s single-person sailboat capsized after winds picked up Sunday.
“We brought him on board and dried him off, and then put him in a cabin out of the wind,” said Durango Police Cmdr. Jacob Dunlop. “But he had been swimming and it was cold. He was not happy.”
Durango resident, and Otto’s owner, John Debbink set out with his canine companion around 12:30 p.m. to take advantage of the first day Lake Nighthorse was open for recreation.
Around 3 p.m., Debbink said the wind started to pick up at the west side of the lake, so much so it overpowered his single-person sailboat, causing it to turn over and launch the two into the lake’s 40-degree water.
“Poor Otto just got ejected,” Debbink said. “It was a cold swim for him and me.”
While Debbink was trying to turn the boat right side up, Otto – who was wearing a personal flotation device for dogs – started to swim toward the shore, about three-quarters of a mile away. Debbink called Otto back just as police officers arrived in their patrol boat, which is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation.
“Luckily, he had a life jacket with a handle, so they were able to pluck him right out of the water,” Debbink said. “It’s definitely a good reminder for people to always put a PFD on their dog.”
Otto, a 3-year-old shepherd mix Debbink has had since Otto was a puppy, was taken safely aboard and later reunited with his owner after Debbink got the sailboat righted and back to shore.
Debbink said Otto loves to be aboard boats but isn’t very fond of swimming. Otto also works as a therapy dog with children, Debbink said.
“A dog was the first rescue on Lake Nighthorse,” Dunlop said.
About 30 minutes later, however, officers assisted a 60-year-old man who was also in a single-person sailboat that capsized several times. Dunlop said officers noticed the man in the water having difficulty and went over to him.
The wind was so strong, Dunlop said, that the man and his sailboat were blown near the shoreline and stuck in an area of dead trees. Durango police officers were able to take the man and his boat aboard and back to shore.
Dunlop said officers called EMS with concerns the man was experiencing hypothermia, but the man declined treatment.
Despite the opening-day struggles with late-afternoon winds, Debbink said Lake Nighthorse has the potential to be the best lake in the area for sailing. The spring winds, however, are unpredictable and strong.
Debbink estimated winds reached 20 mph Sunday.
Otherwise, from Durango Police Department’s point of view, Dunlop said the opening of Lake Nighthorse was a smooth, albeit busy, day. Because the city of Durango took on the task of managing the lake, the DPD is the lead enforcement agency.
Officers had to dispatch the patrol boat a few times to divert people from the area where water flows into Lake Nighthorse, an off-limits spot.
Managing traffic presented some difficulties as opening day attracted a crowd.
“We just encourage people to pay attention to the signage,” Dunlop said. “But overall it wasn’t bad. Everyone was really excited and happy to be out there.”
Construction of Lake Nighthorse began in 2003 though it was conceived by Congress in the late 1960s. Ever since the lake was considered full around 2011, it has been closed to the public while local agencies worked out who was going to manage recreation.
Sunday’s opening was years in the making and drew a heavy crowd of boaters, anglers and other recreationists to the lake a few miles southwest of Durango. The lake will open for daily use May 15.
Cathy Metz, the city’s Park and Recreation director, estimated at least 500 people visited the lake Sunday. She, too, reiterated city staff members had some issues dealing with people wandering into off-limit areas.