Growing up along the St. Lawrence River, Jeff Garnsey comes from a long line of outdoor guides and navigators. Today, after 26 years of serving with the U.S. Navy, he is fufilling his dream of continuing the family tradition and is a master captain and guide operating Garnsey’s Classic Island Cruises throughout the Thousand Islands region. We spoke with Mr. Garnsey about his career path and life on the water.
NNYB: You’re a native and long-time resident of the Thousand Islands with a family that has navigated the St. Lawrence River for nine generations. How did you get your start as a guide on the St. Lawrence River?
GARNSEY: My grandfather, when I was ten, gave me a little Barlow knife and showed me how to clean fish and told me “no matter what your education ends up being you’ll be able to get anything you want if you know how to use this.” And it was from that point that I would show up down on the docks and clean the guides’ fish and I’d clean their boats, and I’d put their fish into Ziplock bags and take them down to Bertrands and I could make about $10 a boat per day. And within a year I had my first outboard that I bought brand new here at the Montgomery Ward.
NNYB: What does it mean to you to come from a family of navigators?
GARNSEY: It means that I am attached to something specific, that I belong somewhere. I get a sense that this is where I am supposed to be, which is why I decided to come back.
NNYB: When did you join the U.S. Navy and how did that shape your career?
GARNSEY: I joined in 1983, I left right out of high school and that was kind of an extension of the lesson that my grandfather taught me ¬– that you could get anything you wanted as long as you worked in that direction. And really that is what shaped everything since then, that nothing is out of reach.
NNYB: What experiences did you have in the Navy that mirror navigation along the St. Lawrence?
GARNSEY: We traveled in an awful lot of shallow waters, we operated close to shore, so even though I was at sea for 26 years a great deal of that was littoral ops and so that made me comfortable navigating close to possible dangerous surroundings.
NNYB: What is a master captain’s license and what does that mean for you as a captain?
GARNSEY: Well, master captain’s license is like the pinnacle of a licensed guide to navigate. You have a six- passenger, which is just a license to operate – and I don’t mean just to minimize – it’s the ground floor six- passenger, but when you step up into the masters then you are taking on an increased amount of responsibility and obviously the education required is a bit more. It’s like the top of the food chain for navigators.
NNYB: What is your career today?
GARNSEY: Now, I have probably the best job on the river. There is nobody that I would ever even consider trading places for even for a day. I get to spend my summers sharing the paradise that is our home with new friends who are only a stranger until they step onto the boat.
NNYB: With your wide knowledge of the St. Lawrence River and its history what does it mean to you to be able to utilize antique boats in your daily navigation?
GARNSEY: It’s part of my makeup. I can’t picture myself being out there anywhere on the river without them, because they are as much – the Muskie and the Fin and Feather – are as much a part of me as my fingers and my toes are.
NNYB: Navigation rules on the St. Lawrence River have changed throughout the years. From your start as a captain to now, what is the greatest change?
GARNSEY: Probably the water levels. I would say, that has been, if I could put my finger on one thing that has had a more profound, or will have a profound, difference in our river and the way we live with it, it would be the new water levels because it restores a more natural flow as to what it should be, and not what we want to make it.
NNYB: You’ve advocated very strongly for Plan 2014, will that be a big game changer for everyone?
GARNSEY: Absolutely. The unfortunate thing is you won’t’ be able to just look out off your dock and see the significance of it because the most important aspects of natural water levels and natural flows happen under the surface out where the fish are spawning.
NNYB: How have environmental laws and regulations effected the fish population?
GARNSEY: That’s probably the one reason that I became so heavily involved with Save the River, was because out where I lived, out on the head of the island, that was the most prolific spawning grounds for cold water spawners in the entire river basin. And the cold water spawners are near and dear to my heart, those are the northern pike and the muskies. And in my lifetime, almost 70 percent of the population has been lost in the river. So, I’ve watched us come to the brink and now we are on the other side and hopefully the population will begin to rebound.
NNYB: Shipping on the St. Lawrence is something that area residents are accustom to seeing daily on the waters. How does that affect guiding and navigation on the river?
GARNSEY: It’s part of it, it’s part of a partnership. It always kind of boils my blood to hear someone refer to it as a seaway because that says that it is just a highway for ships and really they are a guest in our home. I am not even for a second saying that I don’t appreciate them carrying commerce up the river, but they should be a good custodian of a place you visit – so as long as they abide by the rules and don’t dump their bilges and bring in any more invasive species we are going to be okay.
NNYB: What organizations are you a part of that lend well to your career as a guide and advocate for the St. Lawrence River?
GARNSEY: First and most importantly, Save the River, has taught me good stewardship and the impact of my life on my surroundings. As a member of the 1000 Islands Museum’s board of directors, as well as head of the Muskie Hall of Fame, I have learned the value and benefits of keeping our river’s history alive. As a member of Rotary, I have learned why it is so important to dig your heels into every project that you believe you can make a difference in. Finally, as a board member on the Clayton Chamber of Commerce, I have learned that a few good ideas and a lot of teamwork is all it takes to make our hometown one of the best in American.
NNYB: Do you feel that there are appropriate regulations on the St. Lawrence River that will ensure the continuation of environmental populations?
GARNSEY: That’s kind of a double-edge sword, and it’s a yes and no. Just recently we have had the Lake Ontario Restoration Project defunded to the tune of about $300 million annually. And although the government has pulled the trigger on that it’s just a warning shot of things that are going to come down the pike if they keep heading in this direction. Unfortunately, I think in the world according to Jeff, I think we are going to have a rough four years.
NNYB: New Canadian travel regulations across the U.S.-Canadian border over the last couple years have created some confusion. What do you hear from fellow navigators?
GARNSEY: There is good news on the horizon. Just recently they have passed legislation on the Canadian side, and of course we tend to cohabitate relatively well, it has become up until the change, if the change actually takes place, it’s gotten so edgy on the border that I no longer take parties into the Canadian water because you have one opportunity to make a favorable impression and risking having your party boarded and molested in any way is not the way to do it.
NNYB: Are the regulations changing the way guides are developing their business?
GARNSEY: Absolutely. Because I have to stay, well I don’t have to but I choose to stay on the American side and I know full well that there are spots on any given day on the Canadaian side that I know I could probably do more, but because the rules have changed really drastically in the last several years, we can’t carry alcohol across the border and if somebody saves all year to come up and hire a professional fishing guide they would like to have a frosty beverage. You can’t carry live bait across the border and it’s not like it is not going to swim across the border anyway, but they’re not deemed as appropriate for fishing in the Canadian waters. So they have pretty much disarmed the American fisherman.
NNYB: What is the feedback that you get from your clients that experience the St. Lawrence for the first time?
GARNSEY: That there is going to be a next time. It’s something that saturates your soul when you get on the river. David Dodge from the Antique Boat Museum put into words something that we have felt for years: that when you travel down the river you spend the entire time going down through Millionaires Row, down around (Boldt) castle and some of the other estates, it’s explaining the history of the river and you talk to your clients and almost 100 percent of the time when you head back up river you don’t say a word and that’s when the river takes over. It speaks to you and it’s an alright absolute flavor, you either passionately fall in love with it or it makes no mark on you undoubtedly at all.
NNYB: Do you think that your guide services and educational components help to spread conservation awareness to those who are visiting the area?
GARNSEY: I am sure that it does because the days of the ‘dock rainbows’ are behind us. When I was a youngster you used to compete with all the other guides, you’d pull into the dinner grounds or the guide grounds and everybody would spread the limit of bass and pike out on the dock and then we’d clean them. And often we’d eat 10 percent of the catch and the rest would go home with the client in a freezer bag and the next year it would get discarded when the new fish took its place in the freezer. So now we believe that a lot of the species, or I believe and it’s definitely spreading, that some of these fish are just too valuable to catch just one time and it’s as easy to just shoot a picture and release it as it is to throw it in the bait well.
NNYB: How has tourism affected the St. Lawrence?
GARNSEY: I think that it really is the blood that pumps through the heart of the St. Lawrence; it is the ability and the willingness of people to travel from all over the world to see our little corner. We would be completely naive to think that we could be the best kept secret in North America and survive, because we have to make our money to sustain our lifestyle and to make it to the next season.
NNYB: What are the impacts of increased boating on the St. Lawrence? Are there any?
GARNSEY: There is. When I was a youngster you saw the little hydrostreams buzzing around, but you could hear them coming ten miles away and there weren’t an awful lot of them. It was a much more polite type of population. Now there are jet skis going every which way, every minute of the day just about from sunup to sundown, and there are drag-exhaust boats that you know – I have no problem with loud noises, but you know there comes a time when loud is just too loud.
NNYB: You spend your days seeing the sun rise and sun set over the St. Lawrence River. What does it mean to you personally to be able to spend your career on a body of water you love and respect so dearly?
GARNSEY: You know, I feel like I paid the admission with the 26 years I had to spend away because I didn’t want to leave, but I knew if I wanted to be able to stay I had to. It means, like an exclamation point on my life; really the plan. You know, very seldom do you get to go where your goal takes you, usually you just end up where you end up. But I came back and I’m doing exactly what it is I planned to do, and I’m getting away with it, which is amazing!
~ Interview by Holly Boname. Edited for length and clarity to fit this space.