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Watchful Eyes

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Border Patrol in the backcountry

By Pamela Beason
Photo courtesy of Customs and Border Protection

A year ago, as I was eating lunch with about 25 other hikers scattered around Winchester Lookout, a huge black helicopter came roaring out of the northwest. Rotors thundering, it circled the lookout, close enough that I could see several uniformed men inside. They appeared to be carefully scrutinizing all the hikers on the mountaintop. Clearly this was Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in the stereotypical Black Hawk helicopter.

Anyone who has hiked to Winchester Lookout knows that it’s a destination, not a waypoint on the route anywhere. So what the heck were the guys in the helicopter looking for? Did they really think that some drug smuggler was going to hike up a mountain and sit down for lunch? That seemed pretty improbable to me. So I recently asked a CBP representative, and got the following response:

Winchester Lookout is located in an area where many of the trails can be accessed from the U.S./Canada border. Air assets of the Office of Air and Marine (OAM), a component of Customs and Border Protection, routinely conduct patrols along the border in an attempt to distinguish legitimate traffic from illicit traffic.The presence of OAM assets in this area ensures that possible illicit activity does not occur or operate in the area. In addition, OAM assets provide rescue support and air support to area law enforcement agencies.

As far as I know, nobody had called for a rescue, so I’ll presume that the helicopter guys just wanted everyone in the area to know they were keeping a close eye on us. Or maybe the experienced Border Patrol guys were taking some newbies on a tour of our spectacular North Cascades scenery.

When Canyon Creek Road was open, I often saw green and white Border Patrol vehicles in the parking lot at Damfino Lakes trailhead. This year I’ve spotted Border Patrol vehicles on the Twin Lakes Road and in the parking lot for Wildcat Cove in Larrabee State Park. So naturally I had to ask about those places, too. The answer:

In the last couple of years, the Border Patrol has been able to expand out into areas in which historically the public has not seen a large Border Patrol presence. The primary mission of the Border Patrol is preventing terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the U.S. The Border Patrol continues its traditional mission of detecting, apprehending and deterring smugglers of humans, drugs and other contraband. The presence of Border Patrol in these areas helps to ensure that smuggling organizations cannot move operations and operate in other areas within our primary area of responsibility.

Yikes! I’ve always been paranoid about careless hunters while out hiking, and watchful of big powerboats while kayaking, and now I have to watch out for terrorists, terrorist weapons and drug smugglers in the backcountry? Really?

I asked myself if perhaps the CBP wasn’t being a bit overenthusiastic, so I started doing some Internet research on incidents in the wilderness. I quickly turned up an old article that mentioned an aspiring terrorist was picked up several times trying to cross the border via the backcountry and then later was found making bombs in New York. The article also mentioned a North Cascades Park ranger intercepting an inept kayaker with 22 kilos of B.C. Bud in his boat on Ross Lake, and an incident in which Canadian smugglers were using helicopters to drop bags of marijuana with avalanche transceivers for later pickup on the U.S. side. I found a couple more articles about smuggler meet-ups on logging roads.

So I guess we all have more than careless hunters and power boaters to watch for while we’re “out there.” If you happen to see anything suspicious – or find some interesting parcels while practicing with an avalanche beacon – the CBP asks that you call local authorities at 911 or the Border Patrol at 800/556-1345. X

Pamela Beason is an avid hiker, kayaker and author of the Summer Westin wilderness mystery series. Visit her at pamelabeason.com.