Features

Due north

"Due north" Continued...

Issue: "Snakepit," Feb. 11, 2006

But the need for increased manpower at vehicle crossings pales to that in the wide-open spaces between the ports of entry. Stretched across 5,000 miles of varied terrain, a network of cameras, sensors, vigilant residents, and veteran officers forms an invisible fence. This mission is impossible-and one where rookies are not allowed.

All U.S.-Canada border patrol officers first sharpen their skills in the hectic and chaotic environment of the U.S.-Mexico border. Protecting a much broader national boundary to the north with a fraction of the agents requires the measured calculations and expert efficiency of experience. Cameras and sensors help, too.

"The more technologies we can get out there, the better our personnel can monitor what's going on," said assistant chief patrol agent Wes Vanderheyden. When Mr. Vanderheyden began patrolling this border in 1992 it was a challenge, he said. "We didn't have a lot of sensors, we didn't have a lot of manpower, and we didn't have any cameras."

Now footstep sensors monitor trails through wooded areas, and cameras perched atop roadside poles record images of open fields. Stepping across the border may not be simple, but there are points of vulnerability, sections where Boundary Road on the U.S. side and Zero Avenue on the Canadian side run parallel with only a 3-foot ditch between them. Opportunities to hurl drugs, weapons, or chemicals from one passing truck to another are unending.

"Have I ever, right here in Blaine, seen somebody carry in chemical or biological agents? No, but then again before 9/11, I never saw anybody fly an airplane into a building," Mr. Vanderheyden said. "We have to do as we can. There's not unlimited money."

Field operations supervisor Bob Kohlman pulled his squad car onto a gravel-and-dirt driveway off Boundary Road several miles east of Blaine. The 18-year border patrol veteran stepped out to the overpowering smell of nearby dairy farms. "It went right through here," he said, motioning toward a patch of pine needles and scrub brush beneath which a 360-foot-long tunnel lay before authorities filled it with concrete last summer.

The tunnel, which stretched from the living room of an inconspicuous tree-shaded residence on the U.S. side to a Quonset hut on the Canadian side, was the first subterranean passageway discovered between the two countries. Canadian officers received a tip as to the sophisticated structure's whereabouts before it was complete and contacted U.S. authorities. Three men were arrested and charged in Seattle's U.S. District Court with conspiracy to distribute and import marijuana.

The successful capture both reassured and concerned border guards, who wondered between high-fives whether terrorists with greater time and resources might enact a similar plan with different results. Since the 1999 arrest of "Millennium Bomber" Ahmed Ressam at a crossing in Port Angeles, Wash., border agents in the Northwest remain wary of the area's susceptibility to terrorist entry. Mr. Ressam, an al-Qaeda operative, planned to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve.

Bittersweet sentiments shroud all such high-profile border captures, bringing confidence in a job well done but confirming fears that the danger is real. "The threat could come from anywhere," said Mr. Kohlman.

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