Flathead border feast highlights need for cross-border environmental conservation
Border crossings often evoke intrigue and suspense, and the bold gathering held last week at the defunct Flathead border crossing was no exception.
We organized the cross-border feast to celebrate a legislated ban on energy and mining development in B.C.’s Flathead River Valley, and to emphasize that the B.C. Flathead, now slated for logging, is still far from protected.
The U.S. and Canadian border patrols were among the first people we invited to the sit-down supper, at tables that stretched from the B.C. Flathead to Montana’s adjoining Glacier Park.
Once a formal border crossing with customs, the Flathead border now features a low red metal gate across a gravel road, a ditch you could jump across with a running start, and a green sign on the U.S. side saying that anyone who crossed the border would be subject to arrest, fines or forfeiture of property. The sign had a 1-800 number to report any suspicious activity, but there was no cell reception.
We set up the tables in two long rows on each side of the border, almost touching at the gate. The rules were that no-one could cross the international boundary and that food could not be passed across the gate, which sealed the closure of the Flathead border crossing in 1996.
On the B.C. side, dozens of people drove for more than two hours along a tangled knot of active and inactive logging roads, accessed from Highway 3, to reach the inoperative border crossing. Most U.S. visitors motored for the same amount of time along paved roads from Columbia Falls, Montana. Total guest count on both sides of the border: 82, not including a handful of border collies that, true to their name, ran back and forth under the gate.
We’d been told that cameras would be trained on us to make sure there were no unlawful crossings, but we couldn’t spot them on the well-kept U.S. former customs building not far from the gate. The three small boarded-up buildings on the Canadian side spoke of age and neglect, like peeling grain elevators on the prairies.
On the U.S. menu were organic yak burgers, quinoa and green salads, and homemade huckleberry and peach pies. We Canadians set up buffet tables with red tablecloths on the slab of concrete where customs agents used to question international travelers. Smoked salmon and cheese and cracker hors d’oeuvres were followed by a medley of curries with raita, papadums, and chutney with fresh chunks of mango.
Minutes before we tucked into the burgers and curries, a large mule deer bolted towards us from the U.S. side. It leapt across the international boundary and vanished into the B.C. Flathead forest. “That deer broke the law,” a child’s voice piped up. But the mule deer was only doing what a vast array of carnivores and ungulates have done for millennia in the B.C. Flathead— using it as a vital link in the continent’s longest remaining wildlife corridor, which reaches from Glacier all the way to Banff and Jasper national parks.
The Canadian border patrol declined our invitation and didn’t pursue the matter, leaving it to the Americans to decide what to do with us. The U.S. border patrol asked if we were holding a protest. No, we said. It’s a symbolic dinner to show that Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and the B.C. Flathead are part of the same wildlife-rich ecosystem, and that the B.C. side still needs protection.
After that, the patrol was vague about their intentions, much like uncommunicative houseguests who leave you wondering how much food to cook.
Part way through the meal, a U.S. border patrol truck showed up in a puff of dust, executed a swift U-turn, and disappeared along the Glacier Park road just as quickly as it had arrived. Two days later, as we sat by the Flathead River, representatives from the International Boundary Commission helicoptored in from the Canadian side to survey the placement of border markers. Just checking, they said, to make sure they’re accurate.
As dusk settled in, there was a flurry of activity, with U.S. guests scuttling for vehicles and many of the Canadians walking down the rutted shadow of a road to camp by the Flathead River. The Flathead holds the largest concentration of grizzly bears in inland North America, and grizzlies are most active at night and at dawn.
After dark, there was only moonlight and starlight to guide us. We went back to our tents with full bellies and a renewed sense of connection with people and wildlife, and fell asleep listening to the pure and free-flowing Flathead River gurgle past us on its way from B.C.’s unprotected Flathead to Montana and beyond.
Sierra Club BC and other conservation organizations are urging the B.C. government to agree to a national park in the southeastern one-third of the Flathead, to fill in the missing piece of the Waterton-Glacier World Heritage Site. We also advocate creation of a Flathead Wildlife Management Area to preserve a vital link in a wildlife corridor reaching from Glacier to Canada’s Rocky Mountain parks.