Patrolling The Border

Northern agents get to use snowmobiles

October 2007 Feature LANE LINDSTROM

If you or I see a can of Coke or a plastic water bottle lying next to the side of the road, we think "litterbug."

The border patrol is far more suspicious. Border agents might suspect it as a sign of a drug drop or something similar. Something you and I might think of as normal or at the very least, not out of the ordinary, could indicate something entirely different to those charged with patrolling our borders with neighboring countries.

Immigration and this country's borders-the good, the bad and the ugly-has been all over the news for the past several months and we thought it would be a good chance to see firsthand what the job of a border agent is all about.

Fortunately for us, though, we headed north-to the border between the United States and Canada, instead of the dry, dusty Southwest. We were allowed to tag along with the border patrol in remote northeast Washington state for a couple of days just to see what these guys do day-to-day. And, bonus, we got to ride snowmobiles in the process.

Not only did we get to ride snowmobiles during patrols, we got to ride in places no one else besides border patrol agents get to.

What A Work Setting

The border patrol station we visited was in Metaline, WA, located in the very picturesque northeast corner of Washington. The Selkirk Mountains dominate the landscape in this corner of Washington and the country is heavily wooded with the Pend Oreille River running through the heart of the valley. What a setting to work in.

According to border agents in the Metaline station, this sector (station) was opened in December 2003, and is part of the Spokane sector, which is responsible for 308 miles of border (basically from Oroville, WA, to Whitefish, MT) between the United States and Canada. Of those 308 miles, the Metaline sector is responsible for 25 miles of border (east to west). The Metaline sector also patrols 25 miles south into Washington from the U.S.-Canada border.

And it's patrolled every day of the year by various means, including snowmobiles, ATVs, horseback, snow shoes and vehicle and air units. In addition to the patrols, the agency has sensors in the forest, including motion, seismic and infrared. Of course we were told the sensors' locations are secret.

In talking with the border agents over the two days, it's obvious that while their duties and responsibilities may be pretty much the same, the differences between patrolling the border between the U.S. and Canada and the U.S. and Mexico are quite keen. You kind of get the feeling that the northern border is a coveted job among border patrol agents.

Still, patrolling the northern border, especially in a place such as the Metaline sector, has its own challenges.

"Look at the terrain," U.S. Border Agent Barry Woefel said as he gestured to the trees and mountains surrounding us as we stood on one vantage point in the Selkirks. "There are lots of places where you can walk across or sled across. Because of the terrain, it has its own unique challenges-just getting to some areas is a challenge."

If you're having trouble visualizing the terrain and "steep" doesn't quite do it for you, grab a topo map of the area and see how close the lines are together.

All Available Means

The terrain, thickness of the trees and other backcountry factors (lack of roads) necessitate the use of all the means the Border Patrol can think of to monitor the border, which includes all the aforementioned such as snowmobiles, etc. Woefel explained, "We have a lot of wilderness (backcountry) area, so there are no roads. That's why we incorporated the horses. Also, ATVs and snowmobiles allow us to access those areas."

In the winter time, when snow in this part of Washington tally up 100 inches plus, snowmobiles become a critical tool for the agents. "If it weren't for snowmobiles we would be stuck on the road and there's really only one road that can provide access by truck," Woefel said.

Indeed, the day we rode with the border patrol, we followed old forest roads and picked our way through the trees. We unloaded the snowmobiles at the North Slumber Road off Washington State Highway 31 (just a handful of miles south of the U.S./Canada border), headed up Slumber Road north of Slumber Peak and around Confusion Ridge. We stopped, hiked (more like trudged) through the deep snow and trees and came out at the "slash." The slash is a 30-foot wide clear cut on the border between the United States and Canada. Stand in the slash, look east or west and you can see for miles. Woefel pointed out that it's no crime to go near the border-the problem comes in crossing it illegally.

We didn't see anyone trying to sneak across while we were there.

"In our area, criminals have to be pretty hardy to cross the border," Woefel said. "The terrain just gets rougher the closer you get to the border."

If some criminal type were to make it across the border, he might be surprised to see a U.S. border agent in a place he didn't expect. And just the knowledge that there are more agents on the ground these days has had an impact on northern borders such as the one north of Metaline. Still, there are those who try to smuggle themselves, drugs, someone else or engage in other criminal acts along the borders.


"We're a deterrent," Woefel said. "Right now our primary purpose is anti-terrorism. Since we've gotten here (when the sector opened), there hasn't been a lot of activity. They know we're here. We can patrol the border pretty effectively." He added that, while not to the extent seen on the U.S./Mexico border, the northern border does have problems with drug smuggling and alien smuggling. "We see several different nationalities come across" up here, Woefel said.

During our ride into the backcountry of eastern Washington, we were admiring the scenery, looking for powder and generally enjoying riding sleds. The two agents we were with, Woefel and Bill Lacey, were looking for signs, such as the Coke can or a myriad of other indications something might be out of the ordinary. That could be snow shoe, cross country ski and/or snowmobile tracks.

Woefel explained, "It's a different animal up here (on the northern border). It's more investigative up here (such as looking for tracks). It's much more obvious to see what's happening in the south-up here, it's not so obvious. In the south, they're coming across all over the place. Here you have to look for patterns."

Agents are on the ground everyday. We know where the patterns are-it's on us to pick out the areas where to patrol."

That kind of investigative work requires agents to have more experience than those just coming out of the academy. In the Border Patrol, a candidate goes to the academy first and then heads to the southern border-that's an agent's first assignment. All the agents in the Metaline sector are voluntary-that is they request for the position when one opens. There are no new agents on the northern border-they're all experienced.

Leaving The Slash

After leaving the slash, we headed back down the mountain, took a spur trail for a bit and then headed back to the truck. Later in the day we went to the Nelway Border Crossing on the U.S./Canada border and then the Vista House above the Boundary Dam. The Vista House overlooks the Boundary Dam, which is within a couple of miles of the border. Patrolling the Boundary Dam is a part of the Border Patrol's responsibility because it's a potential terrorist target. Owners of the dam-Seattle City Light-allow the Border Patrol to drive across the dam, which saves the agency from driving all the way around the river to Metaline and back up the other side, about a 25-mile trip one way. The next day we again went to the Boundary Dam, this time from the west side and in a Border Patrol vehicle. We were allowed to accompany the agents onto the dam, another spot the average citizen doesn't get to go (although there are tours of the dam during summer months).

Border Patrol agents admit they have a lot of authority and latitude within their jurisdiction, but insist it's not only necessary but imperative for them to properly execute their responsibilities. Crossing the dam and riding (on sleds or otherwise) in Wilderness areas are just a couple examples of the latitude they have. Woefel said, "We do have the advantage of getting to ride where other people don't but that's strictly to patrol the border. That 25-mile buffer (from the border east and west and north to south)-that's where we have the most authority, which is a lot."

Even the Border Patrol agents don't go into Canada without notice. Woefel explained the U.S. agents work very closely with their RCMP counterparts, more specifically the Integrated Border Enforcement Team, a special unit within the RCMP. The RCMP describes the IBET as "an intelligence-led cooperative that supports national security investigations associated to the Canada/US border and investigates cross-border illegal activities, between the Ports Of Entry."

"We don't go into Canada unannounced," Woefel said. "If we go we work with the RCMP. We contact them first."

Crash Course In Snowmobiling

During our day two trip to the dam, an agent new to the northern border accompanied us. This agent had just come from the southern border-his first assignment out of the academy-and was being shown some of the area by Woefel.

We asked this new agent about his past snowmobile experience. He told us he'd never even seen a snowmobile until two weeks previous. Woefel said most agents who transfer to the northern border have never snowmobiled before. However, the federal government requires agents to be certified to ride a snowmobile when they patrol the northern border. On our drive to the Boundary Dam we passed a group of agents were just beginning their training on sleds.

The training is 14 hours a day for a week. Training consists of agents learning how to ride a snowmobile as well as understand basic sled maintenance. Agents have to get the snowmobile stuck (on purpose) so they can learn how to get them unstuck. These agents also spend a lot of time just riding to get familiar with the machine. Training includes tactical stopping. We asked exactly what that meant and we told how it is accomplished is a secret. However, we did get an idea of what it might mean. "Imagine a pursuit and how you're going to get him to stop," Woefel said. Agents also go through avalanche training and they carry beacons and probes as well as a cold weather kit when the ride.

After talking to several agents over the two days, it's obvious they are continually training for something or another. Some agents are EMTs, as well, which is a help to the local community. Some agents also go out on search and rescue missions when requested by local authorities.

So how do the local folks respond to these federal agents being in their communities? Woefel said, "Overall, it's very positive." The Border Patrol, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, is one of the biggest employers in the Metaline area.

Not All Are Fans

There are some, though, who don't particularly care to have that many federal agents roaming the backcountry. Sometimes misunderstandings arise when the Border Patrol tries to carry out their daily duties. We asked Woefel what he thinks the most misunderstood thing is about the border patrol. "When they see we're federal law enforcement they tend to think we're out to mess up their fun, but that's not what we're about.

"Some people take it personal when we pull them over but there may be more going on than they realize. A sensor might have gone off, a vehicle description may have been put out. There may be circumstances people just don't know about. As soon as we see there's nothing wrong, you're on your way. The last thing we want to do is stop people just to stop people. We're just trying to do our job. Some people think because we wear a badge, we've go nothing better to do than mess with people.

"We try not to piss anybody off."

It can be a little startling if you come across someone packing a revolver or UMP 40 submachine gun while you're out snowmobiling in the mountains. But then you see the badge (and distinctive green uniforms-even in the winter) and realize these are the good guys and they're just working to make things safer for the rest of us.

Think about it a little more and then the thought crosses your mind-hey those guys are out patrolling on snowmobiles (or ATVs or horses)-how cool is that.

Is a snowmobile just a tool to get the job done or do you enjoy riding while you're on patrol? Woefel was quick to respond, "Are you kidding? I love it. Can you think of a better job? We get to be out here (as he gestures to the surrounding mountains)."

Then he concluded, "Sure it's a beautiful place, but we take our job very seriously." 

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