I was 15 years old when it happened. On a foggy June morning on River That Runs Between Two Countries, a barge carrying crude oil ran aground just a few miles from our family camp. The tanks were ruptured and oil began spilling into the river.
The current in the river is swift, and soon a huge oil slick was moving downstream, towards islands with summer homes, towards the state park with its beach and waterfront campsites, towards the island where the great blue herons nest, towards marshes and islands and creeks that wind inland. The timing was bad: fish were spawning, birds were mating and nesting.
When we arrived at camp, helicopters were flying low above our bay: the Canadian Coast Guard. Our little creek, with its long dock that stretched through waving cattails, and the acres and acres of marsh, looked no different. My father took the aluminum boat out and came back with news to report.
“They’ve boomed off our bay,” he said. “They’re hoping that keeps the oil out. Or most of it, anyhow.”
Our bay is two miles long, with big marshes on either end, and the part that opens to the river is pretty narrow. Floating booms stretched from mainland to island to mainland, protecting the marshes in the bay from the oil slick that was moving past on the river.
About 300,000 gallons of crude oil leaked into the river altogether, carried across more than 80 miles of river. The booms helped keep the oil out of our bay, but most of the river waterfront did not fare as well. When eventually, we were allowed to take out boats onto the river, the scene was a bit unreal. Every island and every rock, for as far as we could see, had a thick ring of oil around it. It looked like tar, thick and black, the kind of stuff you’d pave a driveway with.
As the summer went on, the water level dropped, and the oil just stayed on the islands, a band that was often several feet wide and several inches deep. When we stepped onto an island, we’d get off onto dry rock, and then try to jump the band of crude oil to get to the clean center of the island. No matter how careful we were, some of the oil would get onto our clothes. Once the oil got onto a beach towel or pair of shorts, we’d have to throw it away. Nothing would get it clean.
About $8 million was spent in an attempt to clean up the oil, but the clean-up efforts concentrated on the mainland. No one cleaned up the islands and rocks; the oil was left to degrade naturally. It remained for years and years. No one really knows how many birds died, or how many fish or mammals or amphibians. I remember thinking that any creature who came into contact with that thick black stuff would be in trouble: it couldn’t be washed off or scraped off or licked off. It just stuck.
Although it was the largest inland vessel oil spill ever to happen in the country, media coverage died away pretty quickly. No one back in Snowstorm City talked much about the spill. Years later, when we took a visitor out sailing on the river, he asked my father, “Why do the islands and rocks have those black lines around them?”
I remember looking out and feeling surprised. By then, I was so used the black lines that I didn’t even see them. My father squinted out at the horizon and said, “Yeah, that’s the high water line from 1976. The year of the spill.”