Float into Canada, face $750K fine, jail, quarantine

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Authorities want to pop the party.

An unsanctioned annual summer marine event down the St. Clair River that skims the international border and draws thousands of tubers, kayakers and other inflatable vessel adventure-seekers could face serious consequences — stiff fines, jail and quarantines — if they drift too far from Michigan's shore.

The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards said in a joint statement that they will have "no tolerance" Sunday if Americans cross the closed border during the Port Huron Float Down, noting it "poses risks to participants and other users of the waterways" during a 7.5-mile course. Aside from the risks, the U.S./Canadian border remains closed until Sept. 21 amid the global pandemic, officials announced Friday.

Floaters travel down the St. Clair River during Float Down Sunday at Lighthouse Beach in Port Huron. Thousands of people gathered for the event and floated down the St. Clair River.

People floating down the river in any form of watercraft who cross the closed border will be given a $750,000 fine and/or imprisonment of up to six months, said Sgt. Penny Hermann of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

"We continue to encourage members of the public to comply with all recommendations from public health experts to help stop the spread of COVID-19," Hermann said in a statement.

"Canadian and U.S. law enforcement partners have a positive history of collaborating to keep our border secure. This has been extremely beneficial for both countries and has gone a long way in protecting citizens on both sides of the border."

Law enforcement will be on both sides of the border to patrol and ensure compliance with the restriction. They will be utilizing technology and surveilling to ensure people are in compliance with the non-essential travel restriction. They are also encouraging anyone on the water to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The fast-moving current, large crowd, lack of lifejackets, but no lack of alcohol consumption, and limited rescue resources can result in serious injuries or fatalities that could be avoided, authorities say.

In 2016, high winds and a heavy downpour led to 1,500 participants requiring assistance when they landed on the Canadian shoreline at Sarnia and Corunna, leaving them stranded. Some had injuries and were suffering from hypothermia, officials said.

Sarnia Mayor Michael Bradley fears large crowds of Michigan residents will travel again into his downtown as they have in past years.

"I wish they had the decency and integrity not to do this during COVID," he told The Detroit News on Friday. "In 2016, when we had 1,500 Americans show up, we were extremely tolerant. There were many people with no identification at all. We took care of them all and returned them using Sarnia transit back across the river on our dollar."

Bradley said there will be "no tolerance this year" and will require any Americans who surface on their shore to quarantine in isolation for 14 days.

"I don’t think they understand this is a sovereign country," he said. "Michigan has triple the deaths from COVID-19 compared to Sarnia. ...We're doing everything we can to prevent this spread. We have cut every other event with no large gatherings of more than 100 people.

Michigan's death count hit 6,300 on Friday, compared with 2,835 deaths in the neighboring Canadian province of Ontario, which is the home of Sarnia.

"They can literally kill someone else by not staying home. It's just wrong," he said.

Megan Hearn from Port Huron says she "definitely plans to attend the float down," as she has the past four years.

"I go every year because I simply love the water, everyone always has a great time, and this year it is the only real 'summer event,'" said Hearn, 20. 

"The group I’m going with plans on bringing paddles for everyone who is on our raft. We always bring our IDs in a waterproof case so we are not worried about Canada. I only ended up on that side once and that was my first year doing Float Down."

The St. Clair River is closed to boat traffic for the event this year. Hearn said if the event was "unsafe" they wouldn't close the river for the event.

"I am a little worried only when we launch off Lighthouse Beach because that will be the most crowded spot. But once you’re on the water, there is enough room to keep a distance from other floaters," she said.

Longtime Port Huron resident Lee Evans Sr. and his wife tie two rubber boats together and attend the Float Down each year just to relax, he said.

"It all depends on the weather because one time, my wife and I did end up in Canada," said Evans, 57. "It was pretty crowded last year. The beach is almost standing room only. Everyone’s always respectful of each other. My wife and I always take precautions with life jackets, whistles and will wear masks. We just want a relaxing time to float with each other."

On Sunday, the area is forecasted to have scattered thunderstorms with winds near 10 mph. There's a high of 76 degrees and a low of 60.

Lisa Hamilton said her cousin was one of the first organizers of the event, but because of the dangers, she hasn't taken part in it recently.

"People need to be aware and prepared with wearing life jackets while floating down the river, not just having one sitting in your raft," said Hamilton, who often boats on the river. 

"I personally wouldn't recommend doing it this year. I just enjoy chilling on the deck watching them float by and with storms in the forecast, I am sure there will be many of people ending up across the pond."

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_