LA CROSSE, Wis. -- As college students head back to school, volunteers are once again stepping up efforts to keep a watchful eye on the river.
The La Crosse police reserves are out all-year round patrolling the river on the weekends.
Now that UW-La Crosse, Viterbo and Western Technical College are back in session, that means extra help patrolling the river with Operation River Watch volunteers.
It's one of the most popular spots to visit in the city, but Andrew Verhoeven sees a different side to La Crosse's Riverside Park at night.
“It looks like inviting water, but I mean if you have a couple of drinks in you, and you're not expecting it to be there, and there’s rocks here, and you take a tumble, it's not as safe as it looks,” said Verhoeven.
Verhoeven is a member of Operation River Watch, an organization made up of college students from UW-L, Viterbo and Western Technical College as well as community members dedicated to patrolling the park after hours.
“I like to think that we're down here as the last line of defense, making sure nothing bad happens,” said Verhoven.
Operation River Watch volunteers will take shifts on Thursday through Saturday nights from 11 at night to 3 in the morning, patrolling alongside the La Crosse Police Reserves.
“We're excited to have Operation River Watch back because that gives us additional manpower because this is a very large park, and it's hard for a single person for even two or three people to staff the entire park,” said Cmdr. Adam Wohlwend of the La Crosse Police Reserves.
So far this year they say the police reserves have come into contact with more than 950 people. That's about a 2-percent increase from this time last year.
Not all of them are intoxicated, wandering into the park after hours. Officials say sometimes it’s just people that don't know the park is closed and sometimes it's people who are looking for law enforcement officials for help.
"I think it's also being known in La Crosse that we're down here, and often times people come down here asking for our help,” said Wohlwend. “They have a missing friend, and we have a radio communications to get it to dispatch and regular officers on the street to identify and find these missing people."
This past Labor Day weekend, police received a call about a missing college student who was intoxicated. Friends feared he may have wandered down to the Mississippi River and drowned.
Search boats were launched near Riverside Park, but police found the 23-year-old University of Wisconsin Stevens Point student wandering near Fourth and Vine streets Monday morning.
While Operation River Watch volunteers were out patrolling Labor Day weekend, they don't normally patrol on Sunday nights. Verhoeven said that may change this year.
“That's what kind of sparked the talks for staffing not just on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights because that was the Sunday night of Labor Day,” said Verhoeven. “That's a day that people are going to be downtown drinking because Monday is almost an extra weekend day.”
The organization is also planning to up the patrols for events like Monday night football games, upcoming holidays and Oktoberfest. Now, it's just getting enough volunteers to fill the shifts.
“Volunteers is definitely something that we’re struggling with,” said Verhoeven. “If we have the volunteers, the organization is there to make it happen because we want everyone to have a fun time. We just want them to stay safe.”
Operation River Watch started in 2006. Since then, two intoxicated college students have drowned in the Mississippi River, but both were outside the area in Riverside Park where Operation River Watch patrols.
Operation River Watch is currently looking for volunteers. If you’d like to help, contact Andrew Verhoeven at email@example.com.