Cascadian Crime Across the Cut

Illicit activity threatens one of America’s most remote border regions

It’s mid-May when National Park Service rangers Kevin Davis and Jordan Mammel prepare for their trip through what many climbers and mountaineers refer to as the most rugged swath of land in the lower 48. With snow only recently melted from Ross Lake’s banks, the rangers are taking a boat from the dam on its southern end 23 miles north to the Hozomeen campground on the Canadian border.

Davis drives his white Chevy Tahoe, complete with National Park Service logos plastering the doors, to the foot of the lake along curvy Highway 20. Despite the outside of the vehicle promoting a Smokey the Bear image of NPS rangers, Davis rides with an armored cage at his rear, a service pistol on his hip and a 12-gauge shotgun and M4 assault rifle at his side.

He used to interdict marijuana-grow operations in armed raids around the Yosemite area, but moved to the little town of Marblemount, Washington outside the park for better pay and cheaper living costs. Cracking down on drug trafficking didn’t stop when he moved here.

Davis and Mammel meet two border patrol agents at the floating boathouse adjoining the Ross Lake dam. As the sole backcountry ranger for the park, Mammel is ready for her solo, two-day, 32-mile trip down the east bank of Ross Lake.

She throws her large, worn Arcteryx pack over the boat railing and adjusts the pistol in her holster. The official ranger shirt and unofficial black rain pants she wears strike an unusual but pragmatic balance between law enforcement and the geography in which she must carry it out.

Mammel’s work shifted from Stehekin to Mount Rainier National Park, then eventually to North Cascades.

The boat departs and cuts through azure glassy water as it coasts north up the lake. Jagged snow-capped peaks tower 7,000 feet above this 23-mile-long stretch of the dammed Skagit River. The entirety of it is inaccessible by road.

In 1996, a boat full of tourists saw a hypothermic man dressed in street clothes on its shore. Seeing his predicament, the tourists helped the man, pulled him into their craft and then contacted the parks service.

Rangers responded to the call and heard from the man that he’d lost his friend after they crossed from the Canadian side of the park the night before. But the rangers grew suspicious once they found his friend. Neither of them carried camping gear and no car was at the trailhead from which they claimed to have left from. The friend, Jamal Abed, was also suffering from hypothermia. He carried a Jordanian passport, a Washington State driver’s license, a U.S. employment authorization document and $600 in U.S. currency. Suspecting there was more to these men than meets the eye, the NPS contacted the border patrol, which then organized the return of the two men to Canada. Neither had a criminal record in the U.S. and, at the time, it was border patrol policy to return those whose only charge was illegal entry.

Fast forward one year, and a team of New York City police officers burst into a Brooklyn apartment, shooting two men as they attempt to detonate an explosive. They summarily arrest them, injured but alive. The leader of the two, Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, is the same man the NPS rangers apprehended on the shores of Ross Lake. He’s also a terrorist who pledges allegiance to the militant wing of Hamas. This time he doesn’t possess only street clothes, but also a 9-inch pipe bomb packed with gunpowder and nails along with various other explosives with which he plans to bomb the New York City subway system.

Abu Mezer’s failed bombing attempt set off myriad investigations and allegations among law enforcement agencies as to how he was able to enter the country, and how he slipped under authorities’ radar since. To the federal government, it highlighted the role of Washington state’s mountainous international border as a security threat to the American homeland.

Today, granted they have a helicopter, plane or some outdoors know-how, the border Washington shares with Canada still has a tantalizingly gaping hole in it for anyone wanting to cross.

Davis talks with Mammel as they continue on the 30-minute ride up the lake. Both rangers have young kids in the area, and they chat about mutual concerns regarding the lack of schooling opportunities in the remote region.

Chatter over the boat radio interrupts them as the group moves up the lake. “We got someone over here with a respirator, it looks like. They’re spraying the ground. Not sure what it’s for, and we might want to check it out,” says a crackling voice.

It’s instances like this, where something or someone looks out of place, that tip off authorities, Brooks Madden, one of the border patrol agents on the boat says.

Spraying crops, moving building materials or carrying tarps and other strange items all raise red flags.

In 2008, various law enforcement agencies uncovered a large, cartel-run marijuana-growing operation on the banks of Ross Lake. The NPS destroyed 16,742 plants holding a value of nearly $48 million.

The agents and rangers laugh about other strange occurrences they’ve seen as the boat nears its destination. They recount everything from a man who crossed the border in a full two-piece suit to an individual hauling a kayak full of marijuana uphill from the lake to Highway 20.

Partially submerged tree stumps, left from days before the dam was erected, greet the vessel as it arrives. Not a soul is anywhere near. A single dirt road enters the campground from Canada but stops 2 miles south of the border.

Davis approaches the borderline via this road. The line is a quite literal one; its 50-foot width cleared of trees along the 49th parallel all the way from Blaine, Washington to Lake Superior.

Though not a wall, this northern border is unmistakable in its location. Besides the cleared slash, five-foot tall silver pointed obelisks mark its entire length.

Other than during the summer season, there are only three year-round rangers monitoring the entirety of North Cascades National Park, Davis says. The time they spend cracking down on cross-border activity only comprises a small portion of what their normal duties are.

Corey Warren, wilderness deputy ranger for the park, is in charge of monitoring some of the land’s most remote reaches. Duties in those parts are also multifaceted by necessity.

“We patrol the trails for trail maintenance, permit checks, visitor assistance and law enforcement. We are thinking about all of that when we plan our patrols,” Warren says.

These staffing constraints mean that the main deterrent, but also facilitator, of criminal activity in the North Cascades is the region’s ruggedness.

Davis says it’s difficult to stop these operations in the park’s 504,781 acres without a specific sighting or tip from a recreational user.

Other rangers also suspect that there is more criminal activity in the area they aren’t aware of.

“As far as grow sites, we haven’t discovered one since 2008, but all of our training tells us that if there is one site there are probably more,” Warren says. “We know that it happens more than we’re hearing about.”

This remoteness is what attracts so many climbers, mountaineers, hikers and fisherman to the area. It also presents a problem for law enforcement though. Rangers try to limit their use of motorized vehicles, especially helicopters, to maintain the feeling of solitude so many recreationists seek.

Davis says the park only uses a helicopter once or twice a year in crucial rescue situations.

Criminal organizations active in the area aren’t so empathetic to the ideal of nature untouched by motorized travel, though.

Drug cartels have flown helicopters loaded with marijuana, cocaine and firearms low in mountain valleys to avoid radar detection by authorities. Canadian and American radar waves hit high mountain peaks and bounce off them, leaving the lower areas undetectable from the air.

“Whenever I hear a helicopter or a small airplane I look up at it to see, hey is this official?” Warren says.

That doesn’t mean that is how most people try to cross illegally, however. The Blaine sector of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, as well as NPS rangers, routinely arrest people in what they call “rescue-arrests.”

The rangers say the way these occurrences typically play out is that a trafficker from the city embarks into the mountains clad in street clothes and lacking essential outdoor equipment. They get lost, injured or worse, and the NPS stages a rescue. The rangers find out that said trafficker has a backpack full of drugs and they arrest them after treating for any injuries if they’ve sustained them.

“Folks who decide to undertake something like that aren’t prepared for the weather that the North Cascades can provide,” Warren says.

The border patrol erected a set of 24 camera towers in the wake of 9/11 to monitor the Canadian border from the ocean in Blaine west to the edge of the national park. Most of these cameras have long fields of vision and two agents monitor the feeds 24/7. Though the actual border here is only a foot-deep ditch in most places and demarcated by occasional plaques, agents keep a watchful eye and apprehend illegal crossings daily.

Madden also says the border patrol maintains hidden “Buckshot” trail cameras activated by motion sensors.

“If one of those goes off I immediately get a picture that pops up on my iPhone,” Madden says, “I can tell if it’s a deer or not and then have someone check it out.”

For agents on the ground, though, checking it out might take a while. Madden is the deputy agent at the Bellingham station and, unless him or someone else is already in the area, it will take them well over two hours to get anywhere near the north end of Ross Lake from Bellingham.

The rugged, remote geography and lack of vehicle access in the North Cascades present a unique situation with regard to cross-border illicit activity. “It’s a huge park and a huge wilderness,” Warren says. NPS rangers and border patrol agents focus their enforcement efforts in places known for smuggling and other malicious activities, but the sheer scale and nature of the North Cascades means that everyone from climbers to terrorists can cross throughout the region.

The North Cascades’ benign facade holds true for many visitors, but others that are not so welcome, like Abu Mezer, give the region a more sinister dynamic than many realize.