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Most recreational boaters don't have expensive navigation tools. (Photo: Julie Grant)
Most recreational boaters don't have expensive navigation tools. (Photo: Julie Grant)

Security complicates boating along the border

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It's been a year of uncertainty for boaters along the St. Lawrence River. The U.S.-Canada border snakes down the St. Lawrence through the Thousand Islands past Massena, NY. When Canadian border agents seized an American fishing boat earlier this season, they upset a long held understanding of U.S. boaters. Roy Anderson hadn't docked or anchored. He had simply drifted across the international border.

Canadian border agents said Anderson hadn't checked in at a port of entry. They forced him to pay $1000 or have his boat seized. American boaters were shocked. They didn't know they needed to check in with Canada when drifting.

Anderson has since gotten most of his money back from the Canadian government. And politicians on both sides of the border are trying to provide some clarity about what is and isn't OK. Charter boat captains hope something can be done. They say the dispute is bad for business. Julie Grant went to Clayton to see firsthand the challenges of boating the border.

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There are 1800 islands in the region, it's easy to get lost. (Photo: Julie Grant)

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Reported by

Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

It’s an overcast day, and the forecast calls for rain. There aren’t many boats on the water. But Captain Jeff Garnsey is still ready to take out the Muskie.

It’s a 1953 Chris Craft - a wooden fishing boat, the third boat of its kind in the Garnsey family.

"My captain’s license it here, my dad’s captain’s license is here, and my grandfather’s is there."

When Garnsey retired from the Navy a few years ago, he was ready to settle in on the Muskie, and return to the place where he belongs: The waters around 1000 Islands. Especially Grindstone, one of largest Islands.

"My family’s been on Grindstone for 8 generations. We can pretty find our way in the dark on the back side of Grindstone."

Garnsey owns Classic Island Cruises. He takes out fishing and boating parties. He says this region runs on tourism, so fishing charters are an important part of the economy.

Garnsey navigates around the islands, some are tiny, with just a few trees, others, like Grindstone are miles long. Some are in Canada, some in the U.S. He wants to show me how tough it can be to stay on the American side of the border. Garnsey points to the GPS on his dashboard…

"You see this line right here that is going left right left right all over the place, that’s the Canadian border. It’s not even near a straight line. And we’re well within Canada right now. In a straight line, we’re going to be back into the United States when we get to the spot that I want to fish. If we were to stop and drop a line right now, we’d be in Canada.

(Boat stopping.) This island is called Huckleberry. And if you look behind us, it runs parallel, all the way down. That’s Canada over there, Canada, Canada, Canada, the United States."

Truth is, I can’t even tell which island he’s pointing to. We’ve moved through the water, passing island after island. And they all look pretty much alike. There are 18-hundred of them out here. It’s beautiful, but it would be easy to get lost in these waters.

Garnsey: "This is called Jolly Island. Unfortunately the fishing is really good here. Northern Pike and Jack Perch. And I hit the spot on average 2-3 times per week. And the last couple of times I’ve been there, there’s been a police boat that at one point in the drift starts mirroring me. I’m not saying he’s bothering me, I’m just aware of his presence.

Julie Grant: And so you’re in the United States…

Garnsey: We’re in the United States right now. So I go back here, and I bait up your hook, and I start the drift. And we’ve already, from the time I stopped the boat, that little bit of drifting, we’ve already crossed into Canada. It’s literally under the boat right now, the Canadian border.

If you’re fishing on this side of the boat, you’re fishing in Canadian water, if you’re fishing over here, you’re fishing in American water."

Garnsey says an experienced boater like him, who knows the territory, and has an expensive navigation system, can stay out of trouble with border patrol. But he says without a GPS, you’d have no idea if you’d drifted into Canada…

"How many times have you been in a new city and taken a left when you were supposed to take a right, and in a minute or two, you’re lost. Being lost in a strange neighborhood is no different than being lost in the Thousand Islands as a neighborhood. The difference is, you’re in a different country, and there’s a much, much stiffer penalty if you get caught over there.

Garsey says in the few years since he returned from the Navy, he’s seen border patrol get more and more strict. He thinks the military-style tactics are unnecessary in a tourist area. But he doesn’t lay all the blame on Canada.

Garnsey: We’re the ones that drew first blood. We started the whole thing. When 9-11 happened they changed the coast guard, from the coast guard, which used to be very user friendly, to the department of homeland security. As soon as they did that, it was a huge burr right under the Canadian saddle. And that was really the thing that started the entire ball. And they’ve reciprocated all the way along. It’s gotten more and more and more difficult as they’ve gone…

But Garnsey says this arms race is leaving only losers. Tourism officials on both sides of the border say they’ve heard anecdotal accounts of lost business as a result of the dispute. Garnsey says fishing parties call him and want to fish on both the Canadian and American side. But he won’t take them into Canada. It’s too risky.

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