There's a Bomb in My Backpack

Could a trail-savvy terrorist hike a nuke into America through wilderness areas on the Canadian border? An anonymous hiker-patriot alerts the White House.
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Could a trail-savvy terrorist hike a nuke into America through wilderness areas on the Canadian border? An anonymous hiker-patriot alerts the White House.

Dear President Obama,

I'm writing today to tell you about a hole in the ground. It's just north of Washington's Salmo-Priest Wilderness Area and a bit south of Kootenay Pass, in eastern British Columbia. Let me warn you, Sir, the pit is a real whopper: six feet deep and three feet across. Despite its size, though, the crater isn't readily visible. Fallen willow and alder branches obscure the hole, and waist-high huckleberry bushes surround it, creating a neatly concealed booby trap for unwary bushwhackers. The pit sits at UTM coordinates 11U 0499797E 5431505N (WGS 84), at about 5,000 feet elevation, in a sprawling forest of Western red cedar and Douglas fir that spans the Washington-Canada border. I know what you're thinking, Sir: Why should the Commander-in-Chief be concerned about this particular hole in the ground? Because on this stretch of the northern frontier, it's virtually the only deterrent keeping bad guys from sneaking into the United States.

I discovered it the hard way. My right leg punched through the ground cover–my forward momentum halted by the impact of tibia against thick branch–and my entire body plummeted toward the Earth's core. Yes, Mr. President, I know about this hole because I fell in it. But I wasn't there on some casual recreational ramble. No, I was there as a patriot–a hiker on an investigative mission. Following the examples of noble whistleblowers like Deep Throat and Scooter Libby, I'd decided to see for myself just how easy it would be for a terrorist toting a dirty bomb to hike undetected into the U.S.

Sir, here's something your national security advisors better know: If perpetrators of the next attack on American soil choose to sneak over the border with backpacks full of deadly chemicals, this hole will do nothing to stop them. I climbed out of it in less than a minute and continued hoofing it–albeit with a throbbing shin–south, toward the unguarded border near Metaline Falls, Washington. Beyond there, it's just a seven-hour bus ride to the heart of the Seattle metropolis and its 3-million-plus unsuspecting residents.

Mr. President, I understand that you have other concerns right now. I'd rather suffer chronic bunions than have to listen to GM execs plead for an umpteenth billion. But you might recall that back in 2006, when home prices were quadrupling by the day and even my terrier-Chihuahua mix could get a zero-interest A.R.M., the chief concern of the White House was safety–namely, preventing another terrorist attack within America's borders. That's when Congress asked its watchdog group, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, to examine security on the U.S.-Canada border. After a yearlong investigation, the GAO issued a summary of its findings. Maybe you remember the ominously titled fall 2007 report: "Security Vulnerability at Unmanned, Unmonitored U.S. Border Locations."

The exposé detailed security deficiencies along the northern border that would shock even Nancy Pelosi. Equipped with duffel bags and suitcases, the GAO team traversed much of the 5,000-mile frontier, crossing illegally at numerous checkpoints and remote locations. They'd have had a harder time sneaking into the local cineplex. "The proximity of road[s] to the border allowed investigators to cross undetected," stated the report. The memo went on to note that agents "successfully simulat[ed] the cross-border movement of radioactive materials or other contraband into the United States from Canada."

Scared? Neither was President Bush, who was preoccupied with bigger priorities (I forget what). Likewise, the mainstream press, Homeland Security officials, and Congress largely ignored the memo. In fact, by the time the report came out, the country's attention had been almost entirely hijacked by tanking home prices and presidential campaigning. Even senators who weren't running for president virtually ignored the report.

Not me. As a patriot, I was alarmed. As a backpacker, I was offended. Could some of our most sacred backcountry areas be used as crossing points by terrorists? The North Cascades? The Pasayten Wilderness? Glacier National Park?
I called Greg Kutz, the GAO investigator who led the project. "If no one's working at a checkpoint, you just drive around the gate," he told me, recalling a successful crossing from one of Canada's eastern provinces. "On one occasion, we stood in front of a camera at an unmanned station and started waving. No one showed up for a long time, and when he did, he asked, 'Are you guys the camera repairmen?'" And that was a guarded crossing. What's to prevent some myopic, scripture-twisting mass murderer from loading a backpack full of anthrax or ricin or botulism and hiking through a proper wilderness area, far from any roads or checkpoints or marked trails? According to Kutz, not much. "We're not anywhere close to having a secure northern border," he told me. "In fact, we don't even know if securing the border is a realistic objective."

For perspective, consider the disparity in resources that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection allocates to the southern and northern borders. On the Mexico border, there are hundreds of miles of fencing and walls; up north, there are virtually none. Across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, almost 12,000 CBP agents (and calls for additional troops from the National Guard!) keep watch, while Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Maine–encompassing a border more than twice as long–have fewer than 2,000 agents. The U.S.-Mexico border has millions of dollars' worth of cameras, unmanned infrared-equipped aircraft, and ground-motion detectors. Up north? CBP has little surveillance equipment beyond the cameras (apparently in need of repair) at its manned guard stations, many of which are only staffed from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Excuse me, but does Homeland Security really think Al Qaeda keeps union hours? For all we know, the next terrorists-in-training aren't enrolled in a Florida flight school–they're heading to Wyoming for a NOLS course.

I settled on Nelson, B.C., as the jumping-OFF point for my investigation. Over the last decade, the town of 10,000, situated 53 miles north of Metaline Falls, Washington, and 40 miles from the border, has become synonymous with the movement of "B.C. bud"–that's slang for marijuana, Mr. President, or what your fellow Hawaiians refer to as "pakalolo." I'd heard stories about Canadians turning a quick buck by fastpacking contraband from nearby Kootenay Pass, on the Crowsnest Highway–a paved road just a few off-trail miles from Washington. If an aspiring illegal border crosser might find a well-trodden path, I figured this was the place to look. When I asked locals what they knew about sneaking into the States, their replies almost always started like this: "It's super-easy, eh."

But they clammed up when I solicited specific routefinding advice. At an upscale outdoors shop, a clerk curiously failed to produce the proper topographical map. A reporter at the local daily, who claimed to have covered the pot trade for years, couldn't recall one route or zone that's been frequented by drug mules or where busts have occurred. They acted like they were protecting a national secret. Sir, perhaps you should dispatch Hillary with a message for Ottawa: Our national security trumps their trade in "love lettuce."

Still, it was all too easy to plan a route within a day of arriving in Nelson. My trek looked like this: Hike the mile and a half up the forest road that runs south off of Kootenay Pass. From a well-known wilderness ski cabin, bushwhack about half a mile down a steep hill, through a pine forest, to a clearcut that's favored by local backcountry skiers. When the slope hits the valley bottom, find a set of east-west power lines with an easy-to-navigate clearcut running beneath them. Follow the power lines southwest for about a mile and bump up against the border. Step across the frontier and ascend an exposed ridgeline that lies within Washington's Salmo-Priest Wilderness. Catch the view from the top of 7,320-foot Gypsy Peak, descend a steep scree field, and hit a trail that runs parallel to Crowell Ridge. Continue a few miles south to Sullivan Lake and enjoy a peaceful night camping. The next day, follow a logging road into Metaline Falls. Voilà. A simple two-day backpacking trip and I'd arrive in the U.S. undetected. I'd even Google-Earthed the route a dozen times just to get a bird's-eye view. (Note to CIA: Still looking for Osama bin Laden? Try Google Earth: It's awesome!)

After a day of gearing up in Nelson, I stopped at the office of Donald Skogstad, a drug-offense and immigration lawyer, and possibly the only man in Nelson who owns a sports coat. I outlined my plan to cross the border illegally. Sir, he scared me silly. Our conversation went like this:

Him: Be careful out there. You can run into a lot of trouble.

Me: Grizzlies?

Him: Well, yeah–but worse.

Me:Mountain lions?

Him: Worse than mountain lions. Drug runners. And the bandits who ambush them.

Me: Right. I guess I'd be a liability to them.

Him: True. But you know what scares me the most– more than drug dealers or bears or lions?

Me: U.S. border patrol?

Him: Nope. Americans with guns. You don't want some hunter to catch you crossing into the States, even if it's your country, too. Not when it's just you and them and no one else. Now that's dangerous.

Did you catch that, Mr. President? The only time a would-be intruder faces a real threat is during hunting season. This might as well be Pennsylvania! Something must be done.

After falling into that hole, I decided to retreat to the ski cabin on the Canadian side of the border, elevate my throbbing leg, and get a decent night's sleep. I stoked the woodstove, devoured a box of mac-and-cheese, caught the sunset. Can you believe that? A cozy cabin, equipped with an air mattress and marijuana scraps, sits near the border like a backcountry safe house for incoming terrorists. Sir, I recommend you dispatch one of those nifty drones and bomb the place immediately. Local skiers will be shocked and awed, but I'm sure they can be pacified if you also airdrop a few lightweight aluminum snow shovels. Those people dig avalanche pits just for fun, eh? Here are the coordinates: UTM 11U 0499694E 5432212N (WGS 84), elevation 5,550 feet.

Now, some experts will tell you that defending the northern border is a waste of resources. They'll say it's too big, too wild, too...indefensible. They'll point out that the hundreds of millions we spend on the border with Mexico don't stop a million people a year from sneaking in. They'll say you should concentrate on identifying terrorists before they get close. Did you read Jeffrey Goldberg's November 2008 Atlantic Monthly article about sneaking through airport security? Allow me to spoil the thesis: Airport security is a joke. All you need is motivation and half a brain. (The Atlantic article is helpful, too.) Now, I know Goldberg is a pretty smart guy–even though he wrote a how-to guide for aspiring airline terrorists–but are we really going to give up on airport security because some pointy-headed writer says it's a lost cause? Of course not. And the same should go for border security.

I was hopeful when, last spring, Homeland Security announced plans to test a "virtual fence" near Detroit and Buffalo. But the project represents less than half a percent of the $8 billion allocated for border surveillance technology–and will most likely result in spying on poorly dressed Niagara tourists. And in January, new Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano called for a review of "vulnerabilities" on the northern border. But the Canadians flipped out–"Us?" they protested. "A security threat?"–and sent Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan to Washington, where Napolitano assured him there was nothing to worry about. Latest plan: As of June, Canadians crossing into the U.S. will need–ready for this one?–a passport or equivalent documents. Pretty ingenious, Sir.

Here's a better idea, and it's a two-for-one solution (consider it a freebie, my contribution as a patriot): Incorporate U.S.-Canada border security into your plans for economic recovery. Just imagine: 20,000 new agents patrolling wilderness areas along the Canadian frontier. But not the ATV-riding, siren-blaring, paramilitary force deployed on the Mexican border. No, create a wilderness-savvy division that blends the best of Special Forces and Outward Bound: fast, smart, light on the land. Elite backpacker-rangers armed with maps, compasses, and high-powered assault rifles–and, of course, low-impact ethics. Best-case scenario, we get the word out that the border is under Uncle Sam's watch–and foil a plot that saves Seattle or, I dunno, Whitefish, Montana. Worst case, you free 20,000 Americans from unemployment and get them hiking through the woods, breathing clean air, and goosing the economy with their paychecks (think of all the Gore-Tex jackets!). I'm not alone here, Sir. Despite complacency on the part of so many of our nation's lawmakers, some northern-state politicians, like Montana Senator Jon Tester, have demanded that we dedicate more people and money to border security. "There is a significant concern that terrorists can enter the United States undetected at or between the Ports of Entry," he told a Senate Homeland Security committee.
Of course, as a law-abiding, tax-paying, wilderness-loving citizen, I would never really cross into America illegally. And I didn't need to. As the sun went down over the Kootenay Mountains, I stepped outside of my terrorist's cabin and looked south across the darkening forest. The tops of pine trees on United States soil swayed in the distance. The moon slowly lit the night, as if God himself had His hand on the dimmer switch. Somewhere, a wolf howled. I savored the soft whisper of the breeze.

At that moment, I felt utterly alone. But how could I be sure?