Monday, July 19, 2010

I COULD Be a Police Informant

Gettin' goozled at the town dock
When he's on land, the Captain likes to ride a motorcycle.  He tours with a couple of buddies. One of them has a custom Harley-Davidson, glittering with chrome. The other has a monster big racing bike.  

When the three of them park their wheels at a restaurant to onboard a piece of pie, Harley lovers come up to tell buddy number one, "Nice bike, man!" and young guys pining after fast wheels come up to tell buddy number two, "Nice bike, man" . . . and no one notices the Captain's bike, which is a tasteful Honda ST1100 completely lacking in chrome or large exhaust pipes or  racing stripes. The Cap'n has managed to be philosophical about this, mostly.  

Meanwhile THIS trip is making up for all those motorcycle snubs--indeed we're starting to understand how (insert name of celebrity here) feels:  Wherever you go, people come running up, they tell you they admire you, they want to chat you up.  This boat's as much of a chick magnet as a cute baby in a stroller or a fuzzy puppy; motor into any isolated lagoon, and pretty, suntanned women paddle up in kayaks to admire you.  It gets so you expect the adulation--you take it for granted that everyone wants to meet you, admire you, hear your story.

We spent a couple of days in the town of Little Current, dodging winds that were a bit too forceful for the cut of our jib.  Our first night, we docked in a marina that was peaceful but a ways out of town, so the next day we motored to the town dock, right in the heart of downtown.  Tied up here, it was a shorter walk to the little main street and its shops, including the oldest marine chart dealer in Canada, established 1879. But our center stage location meant more frequent bouts of gongoozling.  A simple repair, replacing the bilge pump, took the Cap all morning because of breaks for goozlers. 

I spent some time working in the bow, which is enclosed by canvas and screens--perfect for eavesdropping.  It was a kick to hear the three-year-old, tugging his mom by the hand and exclaiming, "I want to lookit THAT boat, Mommy!"  

"Man, that is a perfect boat," said one shirtless guy.  "I want a boat like that!"  

Then another young couple strolled by.  "Isn't that a pretty boat?" the guy said. "It's a boat," the woman admitted, "but I wouldn't call it pretty!"

As a radio reporter I was intrigued to learn that Little Current is the home of an unusual local broadcast--one that harks back to the heyday of rural radio.  Have you ever driven some sparsely populated stretch of road in, oh, North Dakota, and tuned in to the Sugar Beet Report? This broadcast provides a wide range of information for a somewhat narrow audience.  In summer, the North Channel has its own similarly unique, boater-oriented radio program.  Local resident Roy Eaton, retired school principle and longtime boater, invented and hosts the Little Current Cruisers Net, a daily program broadcast over VHF.

If you're not familiar with it, VHF is what boaters use to communicate with one another, with the Coast Guard, and with shore facilities such as bridges, locks, and marinas.  Our boat came with a VHF radio installed--but it's down in the stern stateroom, where the pilot can't reach it, so we also have a small, handheld, waterproof, floating radio that clips to your lifejacket.

Anyway it's become a matter of ritual for boaters in the region to tune their boat radios to channel 71 at 9 AM each morning.  Roy gives you the weather, news, sports (hard to get even on conventional radio in this region) and--the centerpiece of the program--a chance to announce your boat name and location.

That's cool because boaters can find out where their friends are and meet up--but it's also a significant community service.  This is an area where cell phone, internet, and VHF signals tend to get broken up by the high, rocky islands that dot the water (and by bad weather).  Roy's broadcast uses a tall, powerful antenna contributed by the local watering hole, so it has a wide reach. More than once, the program has  helped out sailors in trouble, relaying instructions from a doctor, finding a boat that can transport parts needed for repairs to a remote location, and so on.

Our stay in Little Current was also marked by a protest march.  I ambled out Saturday morning to check out the farmer's market and the local gift shop which other boaters said was a "must visit" for its plethora of dragonfly-themed doodads . . .  and ran into a handful of citizens with large signs.

Talking to one of the protestors, I realized I had read about the subject of their concern in the local paper, the Manitoulin Expositor.  (Papers in Canada are named the  "Expositor" as commonly as U.S. papers are named the "Herald" or the "Reporter.")   Some residents felt that some members of the local Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) detachment (same as "police barracks") were abusing their power--arresting and jailing individuals without cause.

I was curious to know more, so I approached one of the protestors.  "Exactly what happened?" I wanted to know.  She looked me up and down. "How do I know you're not a police informant?" she asked.   I presented my driver's license, Penn State ID, and business card.  "How do I know they're not fake?" she shot back.

Meanwhile, I noticed that two police officers--all in black, with Kevlar vests--were standing across the street, each equipped with a videocamera.  Each of the officers was methodically aiming to record the face of each protester . .  . and each person talking to a protester, including me.

That seemed like rather a hostile and chilling approach for police to take in a small town where everyone knows everyone.  Being nosy, I ambled over to chat up one of the officers.  "I'm not from around here," I said.  "I'm curious about what you are doing . . . what do Canadian laws say about police videotaping protestors?" (Note:  It's legal.  Also legal for citizens to videotape police--as long as you do not interfere with "police operations."  Many court cases hang on interpretation of that phrase.)

He referred me to his sergeant, who was standing in front of HQ, surveying the scene.  "It's a security measure," he said easily.  "We just want to keep everyone safe."

I talked with other protestors, including some who said family members had been harassed and one who said he had personally been harassed.  Not a lot of details forthcoming (I infer from the newspaper article that might be because the case is in front of several review boards).

With so little data, I haven't drawn any conclusions about all of this.  There are two sides to every story, and I don't really feel like I know either side.

But a few hours later, Bill was (still) working on the bilge pump when a uniformed officer stopped by the boat and chatted him up.  

A few hours after that, as we sat on the deck of the Anchor Inn, a black sedan with smoked windows slowed for the stop sign at the corner. The light was just right, and I could see uniformed men inside.

And the next morning, a councillor (city council member) stopped by the boat, just to say howdy. Nosy as I am, I had to poke the bear.  "I saw you had a few protesters in town yesterday," I said. "Sure, some people here in town have a beef with the police," he smiled.  "They're mostly felons."

P.S. Keep reading for a new installment of SlowBoat's "What IS IT?" contest

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