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Up north, it's a self check-in border

Boaters don't just slide unheeded from Canada to the United States - that is, as long as they follow rules and announce themselves.

Published June 11, 2006

[Times photo: Susan Taylor Martin]
While there's no personal greeting from customs agents, boaters entering the United States from Canada are expected to report in. Captains use this phone box at the city marina in Ogdensburg, N.Y., to register themselves.

ST. LAWRENCE RIVER, U.S.-Canadian border - Call it the "honor system" of combating international crime and terrorism.

When private boaters enter U.S. waters from Canada, chances are there won't be any U.S. Customs officials there to meet them. Instead, they are supposed to go to a videophone - like the one at the city marina in Ogdensburg, N.Y. - and give the home port, boat registration number, the names and citizenship of all passengers and a list of alcohol or anything else acquired outside the country.

It's even more basic on the Canadian side.

At Rockport, a picturesque village west of Ogdensburg, the tiny Canadian customs office is open only in summer and only in daylight. Private boaters arriving from the United States at other times are directed to a nearby pay phone booth where they are supposed to report in using a toll-free number.

If this sounds like a system a smuggler, or terrorist, could easily exploit, that's because it is.

"We like to think people obey the law," says Kevin Corsaro of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But, he acknowledges, "it's hard to guarantee it."

The attention of most Americans has long been focused on their southern border, which thousands of Mexicans illegally cross each year in search of better jobs and lives.

But the northern border has come under increasing scrutiny since 1999, when an Algerian arriving from British Columbia with a carload of bombmaking materials was charged with plotting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.

Concern heightened after the Sept.11 attacks - which some Americans erroneously believe were launched from Canada - and again this month, when Canadian authorities arrested 17 men - all Muslims, all Canadian citizens - on charges they planned to blow up Parliament and other landmarks.

As more details of the alleged plot emerge, some of the accused look less like hardened terrorists than jihadi wanna-bes. Their Ontario "training camp" was in a fairly populated area where they played paint ball and complained about the cold.

Yet the arrests sparked fears in the United States that homegrown Canadian terrorists could easily slip across a "Borderline Insecure," as a Canadian Senate committee called it in a report last year.

In disturbing detail, the report showed how porous the border between the two countries had become:

-- Canada has 139 land ports of entry in which customs officials work alone all or part of the time. In some remote areas, the closest backup help is 25 miles away. In 2004 there were 1,600 cases of people "crashing" the border, the report says.

-- Of Canada's 13 major international airports, six have limited customs operations. One agent in Windsor, Ontario, a petite woman in her 50s, was unable to screen a group of men arriving by private plane at night because she was by herself and they were too drunk and disorderly.

-- Both U.S. and Canadian lawmakers have been slow to explore alternatives to the aging Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor - the busiest crossing point between the two countries.

"If terrorists wanted to cripple Canada and simultaneously hobble the United States, where would they most likely strike?" the report asks. "An optimal target might well be the Ambassador Bridge."

As gloomy as this sounds, security on both sides of the land border has substantially increased since 9/11. A new U.S. law requiring travelers to show passports by 2008 will make it harder for undesirables to move back and forth.

But the greater security on land only highlights the relative insecurity on the water.

"It'd be easy to get across," says Jamie Kennedy, an auto mechanic who was helping a friend repair his boat at the Ogdensburg marina, about a mile across the St. Lawrence River from Prescott, Ontario.

"If you turned the lights off in the middle of the night, no one will know it."

The U.S-Canadian border is often called the world's longest peaceful border. Every year, it is legally crossed by more than 71-million people and $350-billion in goods, making each country the other's largest trading partner.

For about a third of its 4,000-mile length, the border runs through water - the lakes and marshes of Minnesota, the vast expanse of the Great Lakes and finally the St. Lawrence River as it flows through a scenic maze of tiny, forested islands.

"It's a fluid border, an imaginary line, no fences, no markers," says Dick Ashlaw, the U.S. Border Patrol agent in charge of an area of northern New York.

"It's very difficult to patrol and guard."

It is in this part of New York that the vulnerability of the water border is most apparent.

In much of the region, the land slopes gently to the St. Lawrence, making it ideal for pleasure craft to tie up and unload passengers and cargo, legal or otherwise. From there they can easily be transferred to vehicles waiting on lightly traveled roads that run close to the shoreline.

In the 1990s, when liquor taxes were higher in Canada than in the United States, the city of Cornwall, Ontario, seized and dumped so much illegal booze it started to contaminate the groundwater.

Today, smugglers spirit cigarettes and firearms into Canada, while the main activity in the other direction is drug smuggling - much of it high-quality marijuana.

Then there are the people who try to sneak across.

"For a long time it was predominantly Pakistanis and Indians, a lot of eastern Europeans, then Chinese," says Ashlaw, whose agents patrol a 40-mile stretch of river. "These were people who got off the plane in Canada and claimed refugee status. They had no intention of staying in Canada, but it was easier to get into Canada."

In recent years, Asians have largely been replaced by other nationalities, including Arabs from the Middle East.

"Since 9/11 our mission has changed," Ashlaw says. "We're no longer looking at just illegal aliens, we've apprehended people with terrorist affiliations."

Among the easiest places for drug smugglers and others to cross the border is the reservation of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, many of whose members are ironworkers who helped build the World Trade Center.

Part of the reservation lies in Ontario, part in New York and part on an island between the two. When the St. Lawrence freezes in winter, "it creates a virtual ice highway," says Brendan White, a tribal spokesman.

The tribe has 15 police officers who spend at least half their time patrolling the river by boat or snowmobile. In 2004 and 2005, the tribe received just $5,000 a year in Department of Homeland Security money, although it recently got $263,000 from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"This area doesn't receive enough federal attention and resources, so our tribal police department can't enforce the border as effectively as it could," White says. "It enables non-native elements to exploit our people for their own personal gain."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents along the Canadian border has tripled, to about 1,000. That is still far fewer than along the shorter Mexican border.

Some U.S. lawmakers have proposed building a wall, an idea that most people in this region, including officials, find impractical and ridiculous.

"It's a laughable suggestion," says Chris Kealey, spokesman for Customs Canada.

Area residents routinely cross the border - New Yorkers going to Ottawa, the nearest big city, to dine out or catch planes, Canadians coming south to gamble at the big Mohawk casino. Most worry more about the new passport requirements than they do about the possibility of terrorists slipping across the river.

"It's very safe. I don't sit around with a shotgun in my lap," says Roland McKee, a retired railroad executive who lives on the water in Ogdensburg.

At the nearby city marina, the "U.S. Customs Border Protection Site" - actually a videophone - awaits private boaters coming from Canada.

"Open door, lift handset and press appropriate button to call," the instructions begin.

After giving the required information, the boat's captain either receives a clearance number and is allowed to proceed, or else is told to wait for a customs inspector.

The process is even simpler for boaters who pass criminal background checks and qualify for a "trusted traveler" program. All they have to do is call and be on their way.

Last year, about 12,000 boaters entering U.S. waters from Canada reported in to customs sites in upstate New York, according to Corsaro of Customs and Border Protection. It's impossible to know how many didn't report, but Corsaro presumes many do - if only from fear of being fined or having their boats seized if they don't.

"We have various checks and balances," he says. "We have the Coast Guard and Border Patrol in the water doing spot checks to assure that boaters comply. Certainly we like to think that everyone reports, but I'm sure there are times they don't."

Compliance is also thwarted by the occasional nonworking videophone and a myriad of customs and immigration forms that "are very confusing for us, let alone pleasure boaters," says Ashlaw, the patrol agent in charge.

"Unless you're physically inspecting something, the honest ones will comply and the ones who aren't honest won't."

Given human shortcomings and such a long, watery border, is Ashlaw satisfied with the level of security?

"I don't think any border agent would say there are enough people. The spotlight is on the southern border and the Arizona desert and that's where we've been forced to put more assets. We're kind of lacking things on the northern border."

Susan Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified June 11, 2006, 05:25:43]

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