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Swimmers reminded of risks in natural waterways | PHOTOS

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These larger signs warning visitors to Factory Shoals Park were erected a few days after a drowning in the park a year ago. The park has always had signs warning visitors of possible risks, and there is no designated swimming area in the park. (Staff Photo: Aimee Jones)

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This signage at the gatehouse entrance to Factory Shoals Park has been in place since the park opened 30 years ago, according to park ranger Mike Beyer. A similar sign is also in place near the path to a sandbar popular with swimmers.

COVINGTON — After 30 years as the ranger at Factory Shoals Park, Mike Beyer knows every inch of the river that courses through the rolling, wooded landscape. Beyer knows the Alcovy River has its own personality, changing from day to day. He also knows that, as alluring and beautiful as the river is, there can be danger in the water.

Over the past three decades, Beyer said there have been seven drownings in the area of Factory Shoals Park, located about 10 miles south of Covington off Factory Bridge Road. He said no one area of the waterway can be singled out as the most dangerous — drownings have occurred in the calm water above the shoals, in the rushing water over the shoals, and in the flat water where the river empties into Lake Jackson. Each incident has its own unique set of circumstances — sometimes alcohol was involved, in others, victims simply weren’t strong swimmers.

A cool river is hard for people to resist on a warm day, however, and Beyer said more and more visitors are drawn to the 400-acre secluded park that offers fishing, camping, picnicking, hiking and other outdoor activities. On a recent sunny weekend, Beyer said there were 100 people at any one time swimming in about half a mile of the river — in the rapids that shoot over the shoals or in the calmer waters above and below. The river is also a favorite of kayakers and canoeists.

“This is the best kept secret in Newton County, but the secret is getting out,” Beyer said. “More and more people are using it. We are experiencing all the problems that come with that.”

Beyer said that the Alcovy River is no more dangerous than any other waterway or lake in the state. However, he said, swimmers should never underestimate the river.

“This is a natural river. There is no dam above the park controlling the flow of the water. The river changes every day,” he said.

One swimmer who lost his life at Factory Shoals was 14-year-old Brandon Talley, who drowned a year ago today. A small memorial including stuffed animals and a photo of Brandon is still on the sandbar in the area where he was swimming the day he drowned.

Beyer said it’s his understanding that Brandon was swimming in the calm water below the shoals, where the lake bottom is unpredictable.

Brandon’s mother, Roxanne Talley, said she wasn’t aware of the risk last June when she and two friends took their children to the park. Brandon and another boy decided to go into the water while Brandon’s two sisters, another girl and two other boys stayed on the banks of the river.

Talley said Brandon was an experienced swimmer, had taken swimming lessons and swam frequently in the family’s back yard pool. He was also an athlete. Talley said Brandon was just over 6 feet tall and muscular; as a rising freshman at Newton High School, he had already started working out with the football team.

Talley said Brandon was in the water for no more than six minutes when she realized he was in trouble.

“All of a sudden I called Brandon. He was waving at me. I looked at him and it looked like he kept going under,” she said.

Talley said numerous people tried to rescue her son, but none were able to reach him in time. His body was recovered by the Newton County Dive Team. Talley said she was told he had gotten caught in a sink hole and was lodged under some rocks.

Talley said she lives with the anguish of that afternoon every day, and her mission now is to prevent anyone else from experiencing the same tragedy.

“One of the problems that I have with Newton County is that this is not the first death that has been there,” Talley said. “There were no signs, there was nothing to let me know where I was carrying my child to. I see picnic tables, I see grills, I’m thinking it’s OK.”

Despite Talley’s assertion that there were no signs alerting visitors to possible dangers, Beyer said there have always been warning signs — one posted on the gatehouse at the entrance to the park and another sign closer to the area where Brandon was swimming. Those signs warn visitors that Newton County is not responsible for accidents or injuries that occur at the park and caution visitors to swim at their own risk.

Beyer said following Brandon’s drowning, additional, larger signs were posted at the entrance - “Swim at your own risk” and “No lifeguard on duty.”

There has never been a designated swimming area at Factory Shoals, but Beyer said people are naturally drawn to the river and the rapids, which can range from Class I to Class III. He also said the Alcovy River is a state waterway, and the county has no authority to control access to it.

“We can’t stop the boats, we can’t stop the swimming, we can’t stop the access unless you have private property,” he said.

Still, Beyer appreciates the feelings of those who have lost a loved one in a drowning accident.

“I understand,” he said. “Once something happens, you don’t expect somebody to be sympathetic to the lake.”