As we approached the border, I tapped the passports in my pocket to make sure they were still there. I couldn’t help myself. I needed the reassurance. Gabe Asarian, the North Cascades National Park Complex district ranger hiking next to me, smiled. He knew. “We work with all sorts of agencies and jurisdictions,” he said. “Sometimes you cross a county line or a state border. You take note of it, but it generally doesn’t slow you down. But this,” he said, nodding at a small sign marking the boundary between the United States and Canada, “is different. This line is important. It really means something.”
It was a curious moment. I’d driven all morning to reach one of the most intriguing spots along America’s 3,987-mile northern border. And now that I was here at the tip of Ross Lake, hiking a valley penned in by steep forests, the border’s presence was recorded almost entirely by absence: no people, no walls, no gates, only a small sign, a tiny monument, and a mind-blowing work of art.
It’s known as Hozomeen. It’s a campground, an international fellowship zone, and a honey trap for smugglers.
Here’s the scene. A classic North Cascades valley (steep, dark, fir choked) funnels the Canadian-born Skagit River into the northern tip of Ross Lake, a 23-mile-long reservoir created by Ross Dam, which sends its hydropower to the refrigerators, flat screens, and iPad chargers of Seattle. The upper reaches of the lake are dry most of the year, exposing a muddy stump farm on the valley floor. But from July through September, Seattle City Light closes the dam’s gates and fills up the bathtub, which turns the Hozomeen area into a hive of outdoor recreation. On one side of the border, Ross Lake Campground in British Columbia’s Skagit Valley Provincial Park. A few yards away on the other side, Hozomeen Campground in North Cascades National Park. “We call this section of the campground Winnebago Flats,” Ranger Asarian told me, which gives you some idea of the summer population.
Reaching the place requires some planning. From the American side it’s accessible year round on foot, by boat in summer, and by car never. The nearest road is Highway 20 (the North Cascades Highway), and it’s a 30-mile hike down the East Bank Trail. Ross Lake Resort, near the dam, rents boats and offers a passenger-only lake shuttle during summer.
How do the Winnebagos get there? That’s Canada’s doing. If you drive an hour east of Vancouver and hang a right at the town of Hope, you’ll eventually find yourself on a gravel road. Drive long enough and you’ll reach the Ross Lake Campground where the gravel runs out. That’s where the border is.
Or we think it is. There’s no painted line or anything. “It runs kind of on the southern edge of the parking lot here,” Ranger Asarian told me as we stood on Canadian soil. I looked east. I looked west. And then I saw it. Finally. The great boundary vista, aka the cut: one of the greatest works of unintentional art in North America.
I found out about the cut during a conversation last spring with helicopter pilots who patrol the northern line. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency’s Bellingham-based air and marine unit hawks the border from the Pacific Ocean to the east slope of the Cascades. They’re known for their keen spotting ability and creativity under pressure. During the manhunt for a murderer loose on Mount Rainier on New Year’s Day 2012, two CBP chopper pilots warned backcountry campers of the danger by dropping messages scrawled on coffee cups. Their helicopter’s FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) camera, which can detect body heat hundreds of yards away, also played a critical role in finding the body of the killer.
Having written about that manhunt and coffee-cup drop, I was curious about the Bellingham air unit, the cases they break and their view of the border. Every so often a Canadian smuggler will shoulder a backpack full of ecstasy or BC bud and move it south through the mountains. “It’s just not a good idea,” CBP pilot Brian Shawler told me. “That area is incredibly rugged.”
Truly. A few years ago a Canadian pot smuggler spent four days lost in the North Cascades before stamping out “HELP” in the snow. CBP’s air unit spotted him, called in a rescue, and escorted the man to the Whatcom County jail. Another BC bud courier crossed into North Cascades National Park in January wearing only thin rain gear. Rangers picked up the near-hypothermic smuggler after he’d survived two storms in four days.
What I wanted as much as cop stories, though, was a sense of the crossing from the air. Homeland Security’s public affairs office set me up on a fly-along. But then the budget sequester came down and the Boston Marathon bombing happened. Security tightened and the fly-along was cancelled. I spent some time with the pilots anyway, talking with them about the job.
At one point I asked how they made sure they didn’t stray into Canadian airspace.
“How do you know you’re on the right side of the line?” I said. “Are there visual cues?”
“Well, we do have GPS,” said CBP director of air operations David Dunn. “Then beyond that there’s the cut.”
“There’s a cleared line that runs from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Great Lakes.”
A 1925 treaty, Dunn explained, established the world’s longest mowing job: a cut 20- to 50-feet wide, exactly straddling the border.
This I had to see. I called up Google Earth and clicked down to treetop level. There it was, cutting through the forest like a knife scar. Finding a spot to see it from ground level wasn’t easy. There’s a road about 10 miles east of the Sumas border crossing that elbows within walking distance of the border. I drove out to have a look.
Private farmland stretched between the road and the border, but the whole setup vibed spooky, like I was being watched from five angles. Which was probably the case. Border Patrol cameras scan the scene. CBP’s air units patrol overhead. And I knew border agents were in no mood to humor a writer out on a lark. A few weeks earlier a Canadian ecstasy smuggler fired a bullet at Border Patrol agents near this very spot. When I heard the sound of CBP’s A-Star helicopter approaching from the west, I aborted mission and motored my Subaru down the road to Bellingham.
Back home, I spread maps on the kitchen table. There had to be another way in.
One hiking trail crosses from North Cascades National Park into Canada. But it’s a multiday effort. Another possibility caught my eye. There was a campground right on the border: Hozomeen.
“It’s a can’t-get-there-from-here kind of place,” Kinsey Shilling told me. Shilling, chief ranger at North Cascades National Park Complex, advised me over the phone about the best way to reach it. “It’s logistically challenging from our side,” he said. “It’s a nice paddle upwards of 25 to 30 miles on the lake. The only road access is from Canada.”
Canada, you say?
“You’d better fill up on gas and take whatever food and water you need,” the woman at the Hope, BC, visitors center warned me. “There’s no services down there. Nothing, eh.”
Duly warned, I steered south down a gravel road that wound through 45 miles of timberland, past logging crews and road graders and the Skagit River, thin and newborn near its headwaters in the Canadian Cascades.
I arrived at a ghost campground at the start of the Victoria Day weekend, Canada’s traditional summer kickoff. When I reached the lake, I saw what was deterring the crowds. With its exposed stumps, the dry lakebed looked like an orchard of footstools.
“The water will come in around early July,” ranger Gabe Asarian said as we gazed across the lakebed. Asarian had agreed to meet me at the border and show me around. “We don’t get too many visitors until then.”
“Where exactly is the border?” I asked.
“If you look up, you can see it running up the mountain,” Asarian said.
What’s beautiful about the boundary vista is its sharpness. There’s nothing ragged about it. I felt like I was seeing one of the great undiscovered works of Earth art, the 1970s movement that gave rise to massive landscape sculptures like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.
We hiked up into the cut, which loses its sharpness upon approach. It’s not so much a meadow as a jumble of timber slash. In the years since its last trim, seven-foot alders have sprouted between the rocks. Hopeful young firs and wildflowers rise next to tall timber downed decades ago. Upkeep apparently involves cutting but not clearing. If you have any designs on hiking the cut, abandon them now.
A small metal obelisk marks the surveyed border. When I say small, I mean this marker is to the Washington Monument what Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge was to the Druid stones in England. It’s comical in its proud tininess.
The northern and southern borders are inverted twins. In the south, a 21-foot-high metal fence runs from San Diego to the Gulf of Mexico. In the north, it’s an open meadow. What they share is a concept of clarity. “We want to be sure that any individual who walks up to the boundary knows it’s there,” Kyle Hipsley told me.
Hipsley, a surveyor based in Great Falls, Montana, maintains the cut. He’s the acting U.S. commissioner to the U.S.-Canada International Boundary Commission. “We use chain saws and manual labor, sometimes a helicopter,” Hipsley said over the phone. He contracts with local companies to clear sections of the Washington–British Columbia line about every 15 years. “Last time we cleared it out was about 2000, so we’re due in a couple years now.”
It’s a strangely inspiring work of law and peace, vulnerable to erasure by a single generation of tree growth. It requires tending, much like the relationship it signifies and helps sustain.
The relationship tending—that’s what goes on at Hozomeen. On summer nights American rangers team up with their Canadian counterparts to offer joint fireside chats. Canadian and American campers, boaters, kayakers, and hikers mingle freely across the open border. (Albeit carrying ID: “Just be prepared,” Kinsey Shilling warned. “Border Patrol is in the area and they do check people.”) The curious thing is that the campers themselves do some of the border patrolling. “We get visitors who come back the same time every year,” Gabe Asarian said, “and they keep an eye out. If somebody shows up on the trail with a heavy pack wearing street clothes, they’ll give us a heads-up.”
Smugglers do show up now and then. A dirt road leading to an open crossing is just too tempting. What they don’t realize is that the boundary itself isn’t the challenge. It’s the next 30 miles of North Cascades wilderness. There’s only one tough 30-mile trail out of Hozomeen. Those who try to bushwhack through the forest or cut over the fearsome Picket Range don’t fare so well. The lake is no picnic, either. A few years ago a ranger picked up a kayaker floundering in heavy chop on Ross Lake. The going might have been easier without the 50 pounds of marijuana packed in the kayak’s hold.
“I’ve been out on a number of search and rescues that have turned into something else,” Asarian told me as we hiked along the edge of the lake. “When you reach the lost part and realize what’s going on, you tell ’em, ‘The good news is, we’re going to get you back to safety. The bad news is, it’s going to be in handcuffs.’ ”