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.
Him: Well, yeah–but worse.
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.