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.
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.
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