Clayton, N.Y.

After our time in Massachusetts, we drove to Clayton, N.Y. We spent the evening shooting along the St. Lawrence River, flying our drone and enjoying the beautiful sights. The following morning, we were ready for day 6 of filming, with Save the River. 

Lee Willbanks holds the title of Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper and Executive Director of Save the River, a community based organization located in Clayton, N.Y., formed in 1978 to protect and preserve the ecological integrity of the Upper St. Lawrence River through advocacy, education, and research.

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On this breezy day, we had the good fortune of hitching a ride with Willbanks and Jeff Garnsey, president of Save the River’s Board of Directors and a 7th generation resident of Clayton and a 3rd generation fishing guide.

Clayton is a quaint village situated right in the heart of upstate New York’s 1000 Island Region, a scenic area that has been a tourist attraction for more than 100 years. Visitors from all over the world come to these cool, deep waters to paddle board, fish, swim, kayak, and birdwatch.

But the beauty of the place belies a multitude of problems, including chemical pollution, multiple invasive species, inconsistent water flow, and shoreline erosion, just to name a few.

“We have tremendous problems with these,” Willbanks said. “We keep coming up with new ways to screw ourselves.”

Among the many challenges facing the St. Lawrence, which is 1,900 miles long and flows between New York and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, is the fact that it’s a major commercial seaway that also drains the Great Lakes, eventually emptying into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean.

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The river also flows through several Canadian First Nations and Native American lands. In peak season, the possibility of marine accidents and possible oil spills can keep the residents of Clayton on edge.

In addition, residents along the St. Lawrence are contending with the ongoing effects of population growth, storm runoff, urban development, and climate change.

Add to all of that the occasional raw sewage discharge from cities along the St. Lawrence, the most recent of which occurred in late 2015 when the City of Montreal dumped close to 5 billion litres of untreated wastewater into the river over four days in order to repair parts of its sewage system.

Despite all of these problems, Willbanks remains hopeful that people will begin to understand the importance of waterways.

“After decades of facing away from the river,” said Willbanks, “communities are turning toward their rivers. This is significant.”

Next, we head to Ontario and Akwesasne, where we will meet with local officials, scientists and Saint Regis Mohawk elders to hear their perspectives on river protection and restoration efforts along the St. Lawrence.

To see more photos of our time in Clayton, N.Y. please visit our Clayton photos in the St. Lawrence River gallery.