Thousands of people will flock to Lighthouse Beach for Float Down.
It's fun, it's reckless, or it's both depending on who you talk to. The 41st Float Down will take place at 1 p.m. Aug. 19 starting at Lighthouse Beach in Port Huron and heading 7.5 miles down to Chrysler Beach in Marysville.
The annual journey for many Blue Water residents and visitors is an unsanctioned event. Leaders across the county are unable to talk about it and the impact it has on Port Huron, Marysville and our neighbors across the river in Sarnia.
Regardless, a massive number of people informally take to their tubes, makeshift boats, and kayaks each year to float and, more often than not, drink as they make their way down the St. Clair River. Turnout is dependent on the weather, but last year some 5,000 people took part. That number seems to grow with each passing year.
The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard, Border Patrol, police and fire departments from Sarnia, Ontario, and Port Huron as well as surrounding cities, all work together to keep participants as safe as possible.
"This is by no means an event that we broadcast as something people should participate in, but nevertheless we are prepared for mass safety assistance on that day," says Justin Bommer, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Coast Guard.
He says there are multiple planning meetings with local, state, federal, and Canadian agencies to set up extraction points for EMS and MedEvac along with check-in points for participants. Station Port Huron is right in the middle of the action, but Coast Guard agencies from the Saginaw River all the way to Belle Isle supply assets.
This teamwork, along with public awareness, makes the float at least a little less dangerous.
Floaters should bring life jackets and waterproof, floatable cases for communication devices and identification, as well as making a plan for where and when you are planning to float that is shared with others.
"At the last planning meeting, it was a resounding win. People were proud that for the past couple years, there have been fewer incidents of people needing help, and that's because of increased safety measures participants are following," says Bommer.
He suggests bringing life jackets and waterproof, floatable cases for communication devices and identification if you participate, along with making a plan for where and when you are planning to float that is shared with others. The U.S. Coast Guard app, he says, is not set up for the event specifically, but can be used as a tool for requesting assistance and checking weather through the buoy system. Paddles/oars are common suggestions in general.
Bommer also notes that there is a temporary law stating that floaters under the age of 18 must wear a life jacket.
To Float or Not to Float? The Yea and the Nay
Sunny skies and warm temperatures combine to make the perfect Float Down.The Float Down is a beloved pastime for some and a nuisance for others. Even for those who "approve" of the adventure, the potential danger is agreed upon. The river's rapid currents can easily pull people underwater.
"The St. Clair River is nothing to mess with," says Peter Michael of St. Clair, an attendee of the float. "Under the bridge is the scariest part. There are actual water spirals from all the different currents." Michael runs a weekly Slow Paddle in the Blue Water region and says he only floats with a steerable kayak.
According to a letter from Canadian/U.S. Coast Guard Leadership, a 19-year-old experienced swimmer drowned during the 2014 Float. Each year, there are multiple assists and a few lives saved.
Since it is August, many people don't consider the water temperature and how long they might be in the river. Bommer advises dressing appropriately to avoid hypothermia.
Some people, like Raimie Baker of Chesterfield Township, are concerned about the trash left by rafters and kayakers.
"(I am) absolutely disgusted at the amount of trash floating down the middle channel this morning as a result of the Port Huron Float Down…This event is a complete disruption to our law enforcement, riverways, and environment," Baker says in a post after she spent an hour picking up three buckets of trash with her family.
And, then, there are many who feel the event is a bad idea.
"I think the Float Down sounds fun in theory, but really, it's just an excuse for people to get drunk and in the water, which I Success of each Float Down is dependent on the weather.think is a bad combination," says Jessica Roldan, who grew up in Marine City.
For others, both local and from out-of-town, it is relatively harmless and loads of entertainment. The activity has become a tradition for many floaters.
Cindy Wilson and her husband, Kevin, are in the process of moving to Port Huron from Metamora. She has taken part in the Float since 2012.
"I love doing it because I get a large group of friends, and we make it a fun day," she says.
People enjoy being together, grabbing a beer, and putting their feet up in an out-of-the-ordinary way. It is a simple pleasure on the beautiful river.
"Most people treat it like camping on the river for the day. They bring everything they need to survive and comfortably float with friends," says The Raven Café Co-Owner and Media Specialist Jody Parmann, who has taken part in the Float Down in the past.
"As a teenager and twenty-something, I did spur of the moment things...older people don't do spur of the moment things as much. After a while, you start to drive slow and not do as much if it is not carefully planned out," says Clarissa Karling of St. Clair, a Float Down participant. "Once in a while, it's okay to have a teenage moment. As long as you're wearing a life vest."
The Wilsons sometimes go out to eat or have a barbeque after their big day on the water. It was difficult finding data on the economic impact of the Float, but Sadaat Hossain, owner of The Raven Café, says there is a "little bump" in sales.
Floaters prepare their boats for a day in the St. Clair RiverJoe Fisher, who used to travel from Port Sanilac to partake in the summertime fun, says he remembers downtown being "a little crazy at night," and the event is "a good revenue maker for Port Huron" based on what he saw. Fisher, Michael, and other interviewees recall the event as a rather wild one.
Some businesses take the third Sunday in August as an opportunity to make money and contribute to the day. Port Huron Moose Lodge No. 158, for example, is having a sort of "viewing party" to watch floaters, listen to live music and sip on specials. Why not make two days of it? They are also hosting a pig roast the Saturday before.
Margaret Aiken, executive director of the Port Huron Museum, says the Float Down halts Ft. Gratiot Light Station tours. So, parking near the lighthouse that day is $20 and includes air (or $5 for air for non-parkers). Volunteers and staff are on hand to make sure the grounds are not damaged, but this year they are also selling squirt guns, beach balls, cozies, sunscreen, hats, shirts, pop, and water. If you can't beat them, join them, as the saying goes.
"While we don't organize or endorse Float Down, we decided to offer parking as a convenience and a way to make up for lost revenue during our busiest time of year," Aiken says.
Then there is the issue of Canada…
Neighbors in Canada
For Canadians, the Float is a spectator sport; Sarnia has more commercial space on the water compared to our beach. It is not a huge event like it is in Michigan, but there are definitely some opinions on the American activity.
"It's a little bit reckless because our police officers, our O.P.P., and fire department are the ones that have to take care of everybody and take them back across the border, so it takes out of funds that are meant to be positive for the city," says Roza Barnes, general manager of Sideways Classic Grill and Limbo Lounge in Sarnia. "Besides that, I think the idea and spirit of it is positive! It's nice to see everybody enjoying the river."
On the business side, Barnes adds that it is hard for people to make a day of their float and explore local spots if they end up in Canada because most are not dressed to go out or have had too much to drink.
The idea that floaters start out on this side of the river and end up in Canada isn't far-fetched.
For those who end up in Canada, Bommer says there are Customs officers ready to process and get people back to their home country.
In 2016, the Float Down made headlines when approximately 1,500 participants ended up accidentally floating to Canada. Two of those people were the Wilsons, who have a split house on going back to the float. 2016 was Kevin's first year and his last.
"Mother Nature won. We ended up in Canada despite paddling our arms off. Our large float started sinking, so the Coast Guard took those on it back to the U.S.," Cindy says. "The rest of us floated along Canada into Marysville until a Canadian Recruit jet ski pulled us back."
If you do decide to take part in the Float Down this year, be safe.