Fifteen hundred possibly drunk Americans successfully invade Canada via the St. Clair River

Canadian Coast Guard knew Sunday’s unsanctioned St. Clair River Float Down was a disaster in the making.

Sarnia Police said in press release a convoy of buses carried 1,500 U.S. citizens over Bridge Sunday evening after they were blown to the Canadian shore while taking part in the annual float down the river on rafts, from Port Huron to Marysville, Mich.

“It’s exactly what we saw coming,” said Peter Garapick, superintendent of search and rescue for Guard.

He was on the water, along with crews from the coast guard, fire departments in Sarnia and Point Edward, the OPP and RCMP, as well as their counterparts in the U.S. side of the border.

The float down is a summer tradition going back several decades and has continued despite attempts by U.S. officials to scuttle it, and despite the drowning of a U.S. participant in 2014.

Sunday’s weather conditions were “almost the worst-case scenario,” Garapick said.

A severe thunderstorm watch was issued for the region Sunday, the river was choppy, and winds were approximately 25 to 30 km/h, while gusting up to 40 km/h and higher at times.

“I think the only thing we were missing was thunder, lightning, hail and higher winds,” Garapick said.
“We knew this was going to happen.”

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Limnos, stationed Sunday in the St. Clair River, was the command post for the Canadian officials, and Canadian and U.S. authorities had restricted traffic by pleasure and commercial vessels, between noon and 8 p.m., in the river from Stag Island to the Blue Water Bridge.

The float down was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. at the Fort Gratiot Light Station in Port Huron, with thousands of participants setting out on the often alcohol-fueled event, riding on inflatable rafts, dinghies and inner tubes.

Winds pushed many of the participants into Canadian waters, and prevented them from paddling back to the Michigan side of the river.

“It’s pretty amazing how everybody came together, so many different to have a very successful outcome,” Garapick said.

Mark R. Rummel/The Times Herald via AP
Mark R. Rummel/ via APFloaters travel down the St. Clair River during Float Down at Lighthouse Beach in Port Huron, Mich., Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016. Thousands of gathered for the event and floated down the St. Clair River.

Only minor were reported to Sarnia police, according to a press release.

“We’re still getting reports in about injuries,” Garapick said Monday morning.

Most were the result of people falling while climbing out of the river, he said.

“Mostly scraps, maybe a couple of twisted ankles and things like that,” said Const. Giovanni Sottosanti, with the Sarnia police.

Lambton Emergency Medical Services were on hand to help with the operation in Sarnia.

A section of Front Street was closed so the refugees could be loaded on buses at Ferry Dock Hill.
No arrests were made, Sottosanti said.

“Unfortunately, there were a lot of people who were under the influence of alcohol,” he said.

“But, I think most people were very appreciative of everything, and were fairly compliant.”

Sottosanti said officials from Canada Border Services were there, and the aim was to keep all of the float-down refugees together, “and then we immediately got them onto buses and got them back over to the states, where their border service would process them.”

Garapick said coast guard officials knew what the winds were doing Sunday, and where they would carry the inner tubes and rafts.

It was only a question of how many would end up on the Canadian shore.

He said the first raft he saw leave Port Huron was already in the center of the river before it even reached the Blue Water Bridge.

“There’s only one place to go when you’re in the middle of the Canadian river there, and that’s the Canadian side,” Garapick said.

Floaters were blown into Sarnia Harbor and Sarnia Bay because of the wind and back current.
“There were hundreds of people along the waterfront in Sarnia,” Garapick said.

Some of the Americans there were “so desperate, they were terrified of coming to Canada without a passport,” he said.

Canadian officials were concerned they would panic, attempt to swim back to the U.S. and end up in danger, Garapick said.

“Those were the people we had our eye on, because they were just jumping in and saying, ‘I’m swimming back home.’”

Mark R. Rummel/The Times Herald via AP
Mark R. Rummel/The Times Herald via APA Customs and Border Protection boat helps floaters during Float Down on the St. Clair River in Port Huron, Mich., Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016.

Officials forced them back on their floats, and reassured them they wouldn’t be in trouble if they landed on the Canadian shore, he said.

It helped that U.S. police boat crews were also working near the Sarnia shore, reassuring stranded floaters it was OK to go ashore, Garapick said.

Lee Patterson, deputy director of Sarnia Transit, said its buses were called in to help and made approximately 19 trips, between 4:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., carrying stranded Americans from the riverfront to U.S. customs on the Blue Water Bridge.

That included approximately three trips carrying those who came ashore in Chemical Valley, and were helped out of the water by workers at industries there, he said.

“They were in pretty good spirits for the most part,” Patterson said about the float down refugees he encountered.

“Towards the end of the evening, when it started to rain, some of them were getting a little cold,” he added.

“So, I think Sarnia police contacted Red Cross and they came out and brought some blankets to keep people warm.”

Patterson said they initially were running four buses to ferry refugees, and five more drivers joined the effort after service on the Sunday routes ended at 6:15 p.m.

Patterson said Sarnia Transit’s cost for its part in the rescue hadn’t been added up, as of Monday morning.

Garapick said the coast guard will calculate its costs.

“But,” he added, “what’s the value when you can walk away from an event with 4,000 people, and everyone’s alive?”

Garapick added the coast guard will also hold a debriefing for Sunday’s response, to see what lessons it can learn for future operations.

“This was very, very successful,” he said.

“Chaotic, but very successful.”

One of the issues officials face, Garapick added, is, “How do you stop an unsanctioned event?”

Garapick said he saw more people wearing personal floatation devices on Sunday than in past years, but added they were still a “very, very low percentage” of those taking part.

“There’s no question the concerted effort of the agencies, both on the water and land, saved a lot of lives,” he said.

About Paul Morden, The Observer, Postmedia Network