The Noise of Summer

You love them or you hate them. But would you lose your career over them, the way Kris Hasskamp did? The Rake revisits the tetchy subject of personal watercraft, just as our lightheaded governor pledges to drive one all the way to New Orleans.

Kris Hasskamp began her difficult crusade to regulate jet skiers five years ago with the noble intention of helping elderly retirees find a little silence in the great north woods where they had moved to escape the noise and traffic of the city, only to spend their summers irritated and isolated by the ceaseless noise of miniature powerboats circling their lakes for hours at a time. As a representative of the Brainerd area, she knew well how one of the state’s premiere vacation resort areas had become a cauldron of noise during the summer months.

With their concerns in mind, the House DFLer went to work crafting a modest piece of legislation that would eventually bring about the end of her political career and leave emotional scars that still sear. Although personal watercraft (PWCs) had been around commercially for more than 20 years—remember that first one in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me?—their design grew more sophisticated over the past decade as manufacturers moved from the rough-and-tumble standup models requiring a touch of balance and athleticism to sit-down models as easy to drive as a motor scooter. To lake visitors and residents, they had been a mild if tolerable nuisance until the recreation boom of the 1990s. Then the high-flying economy fueled a dramatic increase in PWC sales. Elderly folks reported trouble, in particular, with the noise of jet skis. One resident of Hasskamp’s district had constant summertime angina attacks caused, his doctors thought, by exposure to jet ski noise. Another moved after feeling the stress of noise was effecting his health. One couple tried to escape the PWC roar by cowering in their basement on weekends, when an influx of urban riders added to the cacophony of motorized boats. While seniors could suffer motorboat noise, since it tends to pass quickly on a lake, jet skiers have an annoying habit of going around and around in circles and jumping waves, creating a high volume of noise for hours on end.

“I was getting calls for several years about jet skis after I was elected in 1988,” Hasskamp says. “Part of the reason was the number of jet skis quadrupled in number in the state. Older people were coming to me in tears and angry about all the noise. And then when I heard threats from some residents that they were going to start shooting guns from docks at jet skiers I figured something had to be done.” Never one to shy from a fight and known for her theatrical flair, Hasskamp introduced a law in 1997 and played a tape of a chainsaw to let fellow legislators know just what a jet ski sounds like on a lake. A radio announcer and avid jet skier by the name of Jesse Ventura heard the chainsaw story and, angered by any regulatory efforts involving his favorite recreational vehicle (he owns six), dubbed her “Chainsaw Hasskamp,” a moniker that stuck.

In those Pre-Governor Ventura days, Hasskamp got support from then-Governor Arne Carlson, a majority of the public in polls conducted by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and many members of the Legislature. She lost on a couple of key issues, such as banning PWCs on lakes of fewer than 200 acres (jet skiers argued that would have put a majority of the state’s lakes off-limits) and a proposal to allow citizens to file complaints with the DNR against unruly riders. She did, however, manage to see some regulations passed. The new laws forced riders to abide by a150-foot no-wake zone near shore, they restricted PWC use to the hours between 9:30 a.m. and an hour before sunset, they required training of firms renting jet skis, and they imposed age restrictions on riders. The current state jet ski license carries all the state’s regulations printed right on it, so users have no excuse for not knowing them. While those laws may not seem particularly aggressive, they represented progress in a state where summer comes accompanied by the hum of mosquitoes and of jet skis, where one of their major manufacturers, Polaris Industries, resides, and where the governor loves them so much he plans to embark on a trip from the Twin Cities to New Orleans on one.

After being named a “public enemy” by the jet ski industry and the Jetsporters Association of Minnesota (JAM), Hasskamp lost her seat in the 2000 election. But her legislation worked. Jet ski complaints are down and lake owners appear pleased with greater respect riders have for other Minnesotans. The regs also started a small movement to begin to place limits on motorized watercraft in Minnesota through local control. If Hasskamp paid a steep price, the results have impressed even her. “There was going to be road rage on the water and there was great public demand for these laws. Polls both showed more than 90 percent of the public wanted jet ski regulations,” she says. “This is a story about legislation that actually worked.”

Illustration by Matt Adams

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