FERNIE, BRITISH COLUMBIA – Roads leading to this Canadian skiing and fishing hot spot a couple hours north of Kalispell, Mont., are smooth and well-traveled. But if you’re trailering a boat, or have a paddleboard or kayak on your rooftop, plan on a few delays.
The reason? Canada’s western provinces, along with states in the northwest U.S., are serious about keeping aquatic invasive species (AIS) out of their waters.
Compared with their efforts, Minnesota’s early attempts in recent decades to prevent infiltration by the same creepy critters appear lame. And, one could argue, Minnesota’s AIS prevention efforts are still lame.
My two sons, Trevor and Cole, my wife, Jan, and I traveled to Fernie recently to fish the Elk River, a wide, beautiful 140-mile-long ribbon of blue water famous for cutthroat and bull trout.
The fishing was great, and if you get a chance to be on the Elk, casting for these beautiful trout, do it. But the topic today isn’t fish or fishing, it’s AIS prevention.
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Jan and I flew into Kalispell, where our sons met us driving separately from Missoula, Mont., where they live. Each trailered a fishing raft. En route between the two cities, each was stopped, along with other boat traffic, at an AIS checkpoint operated by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP).
Their rafts were inspected closely, and Trevor and Cole were each asked where they had been with their craft and where they were heading.
In Kalispell, the boys picked us up, and we drove an hour north to the Canadian border, where we were told we couldn’t launch the rafts in B.C. waters until they and the trailers were inspected.
“It’s illegal in British Columbia to tow an infested boat into our province, or to launch a boat here from outside the province that hasn’t been inspected,” said Gail Wallin, executive director for the Invasive Species Council of British Columbia.
“Additionally, if you come from a high-risk area, such as Ontario or Manitoba or anywhere in the U.S., we can require you to have your boat professionally decontaminated or we can quarantine it for 30 days.”
Not every boat will be checked, because — as in Minnesota — too many entry points to the province exist.
“So we are trying to develop social norms that will have B.C. residents and businesses help protect our waters,” Wallin said. “If someone from the U.S. is hauling a boat up here, we want our residents to say, ‘Get your boat inspected. Make sure it’s clean, drained and dry before you put it in our waters.’ ”
The four of us fished for three days, then headed back to Montana. Again we were required to stop at a B.C. invasive species check station, where our rafts and trailers were inspected closely. Thirty minutes down the road, our boats and trailers were inspected again, this time at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This made four inspections in four days.
“We require anyone hauling a boat into Montana to have their boat inspected before launching,” said Tom Woolf, AIS bureau chief with FWP. “If we find anyone coming into the state with mussels, and so far we’ve found 14 boats, we’ll wash it with 140-degree water and dry it before it’s allowed to move further. We can hold a boat 30 days if necessary.”
So far, Tiber Reservoir is the only confirmed Montana location where zebra mussels have been found. Canyon Ferry Lake is also worrisome, Woolf said, though its infestation hasn’t been confirmed.
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Trevor and Cole dropped Jan and me in Kalispell, where we rented a car and drove to nearby Glacier National Park for a few days of hiking.
Glacier is even tougher on incoming watercraft. No trailered boats are allowed to launch in the park, and every paddleboard, kayak or similar craft must be inspected by the National Park Service before being given launch permission.
At an inspection station in the park’s Apgar Village, I watched while paddleboards and kayaks carried on rooftops were removed to the ground, and any suspect debris or sand was vacuumed.
“We take this seriously,” a park service inspector told me. “We don’t want invasive mussels in our waters.”
Now consider Minnesota: On a given morning, I can launch my boat in Lake Minnetonka or Mille Lacs, each of which is blanketed with zebra mussels. And at noon, should I choose, I can trailer my boat to any other lake in the state. In all but perhaps a relative handful of cases, I could launch again without question or inspection.
Which boaters in this state do, most every day, all summer.
Yes, Minnesota has more lakes and more boats than western states and provinces, making AIS prevention efforts here more challenging. But with no strategically placed boat inspection and hot-water cleaning stations, our efforts are halfhearted nonetheless.
What’s more, boats from other states enter Minnesota every day, soon to be launched in our lakes without inspection.
Which is why we are where we are, with zebra mussels spreading, and other invasives — starry stonewort perhaps being the scariest — on their way.