July/August 2010 issue
Bob Boule, owner of Smuggler’s Inn, lends night-vision binoculars to guests, who can watch the cat-and-mouse games played by drug runners and Border Patrol agents from their rooms.
||Scroll through a timeline of smuggling on the Canada-U.S. border to read about mobsters and the strange case of Dr. Black Vomit.
||Explore a map of illicit entry points along the Canada-U.S. border and the goods exchanged there.
||Discover more videos, interactive features and photo essays about the Canada-U.S. border.
Defining the Canada-U.S. Border
On the frontier between Canada and the United States, weed whackers and wile keep the boundary clear and quiet. Read more
At Smuggler’s Inn, guests are encouraged to watch cross-border smuggling from the comfort of their rooms. Read more
First Nations’ Border Struggles
In a land with no lines, how do you define the end of one territory and the beginning of another? Read more
Lynx: The Cross-border Cat
Lynx don’t care about the line between Ontario and Minnesota, and researchers on both sides are starting to pay attention. Read more
Stanstead on the Borderline
Boosting security in the border town of Stanstead, Quebec, divides a peaceful community.
Ontario’s Elvis Festival
The King comes to Collingwood in a cross-border cultural exchange. Read more
Discover more videos, interactive features and photo essays about the Canada-U.S. border.
Smuggler’s Inn — The No-Tell Hotel
At Smuggler’s Inn, guests are encouraged to watch illegal cross-border smuggling from the comfort of their rooms
By Jake MacDonald
Somebody must have left a radio on. The inn is
empty, but I can hear the Ink Spots crooning some distant
ballad as the sun fades in the west. Bats are twisting through
the darkness overhead, and I’m enjoying the first lush
exhalations of evening from the flowers below my balcony
when the low growl of the proprietor’s old golden retriever
alerts me that it’s time to get to work — the game may be
afoot. Rising soundlessly from my deck chair, I sneak into
my bedroom without turning on a light.
|Locate the smuggling hotspot of Blaine, Washington.|
Bob Boule, the owner of this small hotel — Smuggler’s
Inn Bed & Breakfast, in Blaine, Washington — has gone to
a town council meeting and has left me a pair of expensive
night-vision binoculars, with the assurance that I have a good
chance of spotting smugglers if I’m vigilant. (“We see
people in our yard almost every night. Just keep your eyes
open.”) Tiptoeing back outside with the powerful binoculars,
I study the border, which isn’t all that difficult, since it
runs through his backyard.
Despite all the talk about tougher controls and stricter
surveillance of the international boundary, the only border
marker on Boule’s land is a rather casual-looking row of
boulders lined up across his lawn. (“Part of my lawn is in
Canada, but your authorities don’t seem to mind if I cut the
grass.”) When Boule is off the property, the integrity of the
border is assured by Motley, his overweight, epileptic nineyear-
old golden retriever, whose unconvincing growl is
accom panied by a wagging tail. After the terrorist attacks of
September 11, 2001, U.S. Customs and Border Protection
(CBP) placed a series of camera towers along the border, but
they don’t provide complete coverage, so Motley serves as
a supplemental warning system for the authorities. (“If
Motley barks, the Border Patrol knows something is amiss.
The officers tell me they’re thinking of deputizing him.”)
Right now, Motley is issuing a low growl and staring across
the road. Scanning the area with the binoculars, I see
nothing out of the ordinary.
|“Although it’s a quiet country road in the daytime, Zero Avenue becomes a Dylanesque carnival of nefarious activity by night.”
An asphalt road runs from west to east across the foot of Boule’s lawn. It’s called Zero Avenue, and it’s the first road
in Canada — or the last, depending on your direction of travel. An hour’s drive south of Vancouver, the street runs right
alongside the border, from the coastal flats toward the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. About 10 years ago, I developed
a writerly interest in the area and began hanging around with CBP agents, RCMP officers, marijuana exporters and
anyone else who would talk to me. I learned that the ditches and woods along Zero Avenue are veined with footpaths and
traditional smuggling trails and littered with granola-bar wrappers and water bottles, and although it’s a quiet country
road in the daytime, it becomes a Dylanesque carnival of nefarious activity by night. One miserable, wet January
morning at 3 o’clock, I met a team of Mounties and accompanied them on a joint stakeout with American authorities.
“Welcome to the United States of America,” said the CBP officer as we stepped over a broken strand of barbed
wire. “Anything to declare?”
“Yeah,” replied an RCMP officer. “I should have worn thicker socks.”
The officers set up an infrared scope and huddled under the lifted tailgate
of the CBP vehicle, shivering in the rain and watching the scope’s monitor.
“Some nights it gets so busy, we don’t know which group to chase,” said
RCMP Sergeant Pete Thompson. “One time I blinked my lights, and a guy ran across the border and
jumped into my unmarked car.”
The cops assured me that it shouldn’t be long before smugglers showed up, and sure enough, 20 minutes later, a
pickup truck came creeping down Zero Avenue, its undercarriage producing a spectral heat signature on the infrared
monitor. To a law-abiding schmo like me, it’s always a marvel to witness the existence of actual criminals, but the
cops weren’t a bit surprised when a passenger hopped out, shouldered a large backpack and “gumbooted” into the
United States. You could hear engines starting and cops from miles around shouting into their radios, but two hours
later, they were still combing the woods, muddy, tired and empty-handed. At daybreak, we
headed to a diner for some bacon and eggs. Once again, the fox had escaped.
“We figure that we catch only about five percent of the smugglers,”
CBP agent Dave Keller told me. If you extrapolate from that, the illegal
traffic must be impressive, because on Boule’s property alone, 147 people
have been arrested in the past three years. Most of them were carrying sacks of “B.C. Bud,” the
potent, homegrown Canadian marijuana that more than doubles in value as soon as it
arrives in the United States.
Experts estimate that marijuana sales bring between $8 billion and $4 billion into British Columbia every year,
which ranks it beside softwood lumber as the province’s most important export products. And some Americans,
Boule included, believe that the provincial government is quietly tolerant of the marijuana industry. “Same as gambling
and cigarettes,” he says. “The government pretends to disapprove,
but think of what that money means for vehicle sales, the construction industry and real estate.”
Boule knows an angle when he sees one and has turned the border’s notoriety into an opportunity. Each room at
Smuggler’s Inn is named after a famous criminal, and he encourages guests to keep an eye out for smugglers with his
night-vision glasses. “We try to have some fun with it,” he says. He’s placed a sign on Zero Avenue behind the B&B —
Slow, Smugglers Crossing — and occasionally gets calls from vague-talking people asking whether he’s interested in making
a little money. (“I tell them, ‘Sorry, you misunderstand.’”)
Since September 11, 2001, however, Boule has noticed the border tightening up. He sees Predator drones and
Black Hawk helicopters cruising overhead and says local law enforcement authorities take the boundary a lot more
seriously. “I used to stroll across and have coffee with my Canadian neighbours,” he says. “I’d get in a lot of trouble
if I did that now.”
Motley is still grumbling, standing at the foot of the lawn and gazing off down Zero Avenue, so I walk downstairs
and join him. As I raise the binoculars, the border hovers at my left shoulder, an invisible wall of air that repels like a force
field. But then a low-slung black creature with a white stripe down its back ambles across the road, bound for a night of
foraging in the United States.
Jake MacDonald’s most recent book is Grizzlyville: Adventures in Bear Country. He lives in Winnipeg.
Related content and resources:
View Henrietta Haniskova’s fashion photos from Collingwood’s Elvis Festival and read a
with the photographer.
Drawing the Border
Read about how it took almost a century
of negotiation and compromise to establish the world’s longest undefended border.
Discover high-tech security on the border as a globetrotting adventurer takes a hike with his family through Waterton Lakes National Park
into the U.S.
|Comments on this article||Leave a comment|
What about simply moving the border outside the city on both sides like the international peace park in North Dakota/Manitoba? Either side can drive into the area, but you clear customs when leaving from either side.
I'd love to see a completely open border (like the EU has inside the Schengen) but Canada's asylum rules might be a sticking point as would the US attitude towards guns.
The United States has bigger problems to worry about than a small peaceful town. The United States can't keep the Mexican border safe so why worry about this peaceful area? Like I said already the United States has bigger problems they should be worrying about!
I use to live on Canusa Street when I was about 9 years old. Our neighbours with their American Flags on the front of their homes always had different school holidays than we did. I noticed that when I was a kid. We always crossed the Street to go play with them. And, the Customs Officers on both sides of Canusa were always friendly... back then.
Lines of the mind. Closing the barn doors after the horses have escaped. Every one of the 9/11 attackers entered the States with permission of the U.S. government using government facilities… not slinking surreptitiously across the border through the reading room of a small town library.
Hiding out behind islands, in-ground motion sensors, hovering helicopters, spying on neighbours sharing a beer together… in the nine years since 9/11, how many nefarious terrorists have been nabbed crossing the street from Stanstead into Derby Line? Wouldn’t a massive wall down the middle of the town with spotlights, razor wire and patrolling armed guards ready to fire serve the same purpose and be more effective? Could that be any more – or less - ludicrous?
The Canadian Geographic film of 1955 prophetically acted as a snapshot of the past while nervously suggesting a future scenario no one could have imagined at the time. It’s one thing to slap down electrical tape to point out an imaginary line it’s quite another to effectively divide a community along ideological and political lines.
One question not addressed by the Canadian Geographic coverage is: Are the Canadian border agencies just as vigilant and reactionary as their U.S. counterparts in enforcing such a grievous act like exchanging a lemon-poppyseed cake with the folks across the street? Might one expect a Canadian SWAT team in a Zodiac to burst out from behind a rock to descend upon Grandpa and the grandkids from Vermont as they cast their lines for panfish?
Parenthetically, what WOULD be the reaction by Americans be IF Canada built an Israeli-style wall between the two countries? Could it be seen as a defiant sentiment of “Don’t trust US? We don’t trust YOU”? With subsequent hard feelings and ‘righteous’ indignation?
No one’s suggesting addressing security isn’t in everybody’s best interests. But in doing so, it needs to be remembered of what’s actually being defended: an imaginary dotted line that not only separates towns, but friends and families as well.
On a governmental level, that might not seem significant however - on a very human scale - dividing and alienating people is what led to the security measures in the first place.
I never heard of Stanstead untilhearing about the arena that is to be built in honor of Pat Burns, the only coach in the history of the National Hockey League to have won the Jack Adams trophy as Coach of the Year on three seperate ocassions. Way to go Pat
The writer displays a juvenile attitude I wasn't expecting to see in Canadian Geographic. I suspect the US Border Patrol agent believes he is doing his part to protect his country's interests. To call him a "witless creep" is to betray a childish perspective on a post-911 world. As for Canadian Geographic, I don't think I'll be back anytime soon.
I would say that the border patrolman was bang on.The B.C. gov't does very little to prosecute B.C. bud smugglers. The proceeds of crime are worth too much to the B.C. economy. Without the growers exporting and bringing in the U.S. cash the province would be in rough shape.
Jake's account of the Smuggler's Inn was very accurate except for the overweight comment. Hope everyone will come visit.