They call her Smiley. And that smile is helping save our lake.
Boat inspections at the Ravalli turnout were at first greeted as aggravations by boaters eager to get to the waters they sought. Lacey Burke and Mitchell Parker say they can understand that reaction.
“Last year, some people just didn’t like anything we’re doing,” says Mitchell. “They would feel like it’s a waste of time. I can see their perspective on it. I just know what I have to do.”
“This year,” says Lacey, “it seems like our local boaters are more thankful than anything, now.”
That new attitude may reflect the growing understanding among boaters of the looming threats the potential introduction of invasive zebra mussels and quagga mussels pose to ecosystems, beaches, pipes, dams, and native species of all types in our lakes and rivers. A potential infestation is estimated to cost several hundreds of millions each year in treatments, plus the loss of property values and recreation. From algae blooms to clogged irrigation systems, there is no “cure” if these species take hold in a waterway. As the CSKTnomussels.org website devoted to this issue says, “Prevention: The Only Solution.”
Prevention of invasive species is the sole purpose of all the boat inspection sites throughout Montana and the northwestern U.S. The Ravalli site is sponsored by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes as part of the massive cooperative efforts of tribes, state and federal agencies, citizen organizations and private donors throughout the northwest.
Lacey and Mitchell work the night shift, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., patiently watching for boats going by on the highway. Most people hauling boats pull into the inspection station willingly. Lacey jumps up to greet them with a wide smile like she’s their best friend. In some ways, she could be, as a devoted part the bulwark between Montana’s beautiful, clean lakes, and the nightmare of a potential mussel invasion. Her smile, though, and Mitchell’s friendliness too, have helped make friends and supporters out of those who must stop repeatedly.
And make no mistake — stop, you must, if you are transporting any kind of boat. Law enforcement is vigilant and will stop “drive-by” motorists if they pass by an inspection site without stopping. Just last week, someone passed by while day shift workers inspected a boat. The driver behind them alerted the crew, law enforcement acted quickly, and the wayward boater was brought in. It turned out they had been inspected in Idaho and didn’t realize they had to stop again.
Inspection is tediously detailed, because mussels are minute, and they get everywhere water gets. Engine cooling system, hoses, cables, jets, fiberglass, wood, aluminum, steel. Their larvae are microscopic and might resemble mud that doesn’t brush off. If the crew finds any mussels or larvae, they might call for help, because they are going to clean out every crevice, every engine part, every last trace of water, plants, or mud they can find anywhere on the boat or trailer. Hot water can kill the mussels, but often they must be scraped out. The specimens, dangerous in their own way as any hazardous waste, are carefully captured for safe disposal.
Lacey and Mitchell found quagga mussels for the first time this year, on a boat that had come from St. Lawrence Seaway. The boat had, in fact, been cleaned and passed at a site in Wyoming, but some had been missed. After two hours of cleaning, they notified the next site in Idaho to check again. The significance of the find impressed Mitchell. “I was scared and excited at the same time.” He says he recognizes more and more the importance of their job for protecting the future of the lakes we all enjoy.
Not many boats come by during the middle of the night. Lacey and Mitchell often just enjoy the time together as their kids sleep at home. But the midnight shift can be exciting. People stop by the warming fire and give them treats. Someone taught them about the stars overhead. A long-lost family member came by on his way through.
Then there is the bear. Usually they see it just wander by, but one night it got into the trailer where they keep their food. It stole bread off the counter and sat down near them outside to eat it.
Around 4 a.m., boat traffic starts to pick up, Lacey says. Many returning boaters offer them support.
“It’s pretty nice to have them with us,” says Mitchell. “Helping us, cheering us on almost. ‘Thanks for what you do.’ ‘We appreciate you guys.’ It’s cool.”