On his way home in 1806, Meriwether Lewis made a dangerous detour for a mission he judged to be "of the highest national importance." Under the 1783 Treaty of Paris, Louisiana Territory was to encompass all the country drained by the Missouri River, but now the U.S. coexisted uneasily with the King's vast dominion to the north. Lewis was hoping that a tributary might originate above 50 degrees north latitude, which would have given the U.S. a wider buffer zone from the British. Today, the U.S. administers the same border with extreme caution not looking out for redcoats or Native American tribes, but for terrorists.
Separated by more than 100 miles from the rest of the expedition, Lewis and three of his best marksmen camped in a meadow along Cut Bank Creek, where he spent three days and nights trying to take celestial navigation readings with his octant and sextant to find the latitude. But the weather was overcast and rainy. When the clouds lifted, Lewis could see the east front of the Rockies, and guessed that the creek ended there, south of the 49th parallel. Wet, hungry and frustrated, Lewis had the men pack up the horses, dubbed the site "Camp Disappointment," and headed south toward the Missouri.
Nearly 200 years later, that meadow was saturated from a monster late-May storm that dropped over two feet of snow, now melting. The wind that irritated Lewis still roared in gusts as mating pairs of Canadian geese rode the currents, honking.
From reading Lewis' journal, one gathers the site has changed little. In the distant west, the snowy mountains of Glacier National Park still glow. Walking around Lewis' old campsite, you can see where beaver gnawed cottonwood trees. Heavy snow banks garnish the hillsides, mud swallows swoop and dart above the swollen creek, and a pair of enigmatic great gray owls peer, big-eyed and unblinking, from a hole in the sandstone cliff that Natives used as a buffalo jump in pre-horse days.
Only 20 miles north is the Canadian border, where the Stars and Stripes flies stiff in the wind at the Del Bonita U.S. port of entry, a vintage brick building quiet on the outside but vigilant inside. One of the reasons Lewis was so diligent in 1806 is that the British fur-trading companies of Canada cultivated a musket monopoly with the Blackfeet, the aggressive tribe that ruled the northern plains with the firepower neighboring tribes lacked. Prior to the War of 1812, the U.S. feared that the British might invade from this northwest border country, with Indian allies. In the summer of 1806, Lewis was only too aware that he was in hostile territory. That gnawing sense of vulnerability returned to the world's longest undefended border on Sept. 11, 2001.
"That very day, we were put in a situation where we had to have at least two people at each port, 24 hours a day," recalls Port Director Kent Brimhall at the Sweetgrass border crossing, several miles to the east. The less-traveled ports, such as Del Bonita, are only open limited hours, and so Customs, now stretched thin on Level One alert, called for reinforcements to occupy them around the clock. Then came temporary-duty Customs inspectors from Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago. Air Force explosives-sniffing dogs arrived to augment Customs canines, which specialize in drug detection. In the last seven years, truck traffic hauling free-trade cargo grew fivefold at the Sweetgrass port on Interstate 15.
Since September 11, even regular border-hoppers at the daylight-only port of Del Bonita have experienced the changes. "They ask us more questions on both sides, even though they know us pretty well," said Sheryle Bittner, who operates a business on the Blackfeet Reservation and shops for supplies in the thriving trade center of Lethbridge, Alberta. "They look in the back of the pickup, have us open the windows. They just seem to be more alert. But we have never been completely emptied and searched, like some of the people who are not regulars."
Nothing is beyond suspicion: on a recent day, the Customs dog sniffed an Alberta Harley at the port, and the rider was summoned inside while his bike was checked. On May 22, the black dog sniffed out a southbound semi-load of peat moss and detected 1,200 pounds of "B.C. Bud," high-octane marijuana grown in British Columbia.
National Guardsmen came in March, part of a counter-drug operation, to back up inspectors at the more remote posts. By next year, the main port may have tripled the inspectors it employed before Sept. 11. While Customs looks for things at the port, immigration officers scrutinize people, and out along the prairie and foothills, the U.S. Border Patrol is on the lookout from aircraft and four-wheel-drives.
Level One alerts have been renewed every 30 days since Sept. 11. When will they end? "To quote a Forties radio mystery, 'Only the Shadow knows,'" shrugs Brimhall.
There are others who travel often across the border: The Blackfeet and Blood and Piegan Tribes, which have a reservation in Montana and a reserve in Alberta, pass through frequently. As do the communal Hutterites, a pacifist, German-speaking sect with farm colonies on both sides of what the Indians fondly called the "Medicine Line," back in the days when Americans like Sitting Bull and Chief Joseph sought refuge in Canada from hot pursuit by the U.S. Army.
For the long-neglected northern-border Customs people, Brimhall says, the new cloud of national insularity had a silver lining, which comes in the form of welcome cash flow. Since the attacks, the problem has not been getting approval for once stingily-granted overtime, but just getting enough people up to work. Budget problems are over. "Now, the problem is logistics," Brimhall says. The Port, when staffed at full-strength during Level One alert, can conduct outbound inspections on vehicles attempting to leave the U.S. for Canada. "Our first reaction was there might be a bunch of people in the U.S. who could not get out (by air). So Customs had outbound inspections for six or seven months," with everyone on the lookout for terrorists.