Customs, immigration officers meet all at Alaska Highway station

Posted: Monday, April 22, 2002

BORDER CITY (AP) -- The nearest pizza is 20 miles away, in Canada.

Buckshot Betty's doesn't deliver, so the men and women who guard the Alaska side of the U.S. border gladly drive across to pick up a pie.

Take a credit card to pay, they recommend. Credit card companies give the best dollar exchange rates.

''This is high living,'' said Paul Kelly, an inspector with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Alaska's most famous border crossing, officially known as the Port of Alcan, sits in scrubby permafrost wilderness on the Alaska Highway. Kelly and about a dozen other inspectors greet thousands of travelers a month and occasionally detain suspected criminals from their isolated outpost, which records some of the most frigid temperatures in the state.

The employees put up with limited medical services and shopping, but most say that the work is enjoyable and the beauty of the land, full of fishing and hunting opportunities, makes up for inconveniences.

Doug Harmon, Alcan port director, makes sure he schedules a four-day weekend once a month so employees can go grocery shopping. That requires a two-hour drive to Tok, a six-hour drive to Fairbanks or an eight-hour drive to Anchorage.

''If you forget something at the store, you do without it,'' said customs inspector Joni Stone.

Stone lives about 40 miles from the border checkpoint. She has learned to buy food in bulk. She supplements her pantry with wild game and salmon.

Last year she put 11,000 miles on her vehicle, ''just driving back and forth,'' she said.

Harmon lives in Tok, about 100 miles away. It takes four hours a day to drive to work and back, he said.

On one commute, an engine fan belt snapped at 68 below zero. Harmon called for help on the radio in his government truck. He hunkered down with his insulated overalls and sleeping bag to wait. Help arrived a half hour later.

The drive offers a splendid view of the Wrangell Mountains. ''I'll just pull over and look,'' he said.

The Alcan Port is open 24 hours a day and is staffed by both immigration and customs employees. The inspection building has windows on three sides so inspectors see vehicles as they approach. A sign 50 yards from the building bids drivers to stop so an inspector can read their license plate number through binoculars and then enter the digits into a computer.

The inspectors then motion the vehicle to approach so occupants can be questioned and identified.

''We are all in the business of looking at people,'' said customs inspector Tom Myers.

One of the first questions they ask is what travelers purchased in Canada. The inspectors confiscate Cuban cigars, legal in Canada but not in the U.S., and sealskin souvenirs, Myers said.

Sometimes the computer check will alert inspectors that there's a warrant out on the person waiting at the border. Sometimes it's as mundane as an unpaid parking ticket. Inspectors detain those people and call a state trooper from Tok or Northway, about an hour away.

A lot of runaway or missing children are found at the border, Myers said.

Divorced mother Joy Journeay was closely questioned about her son. The two were moving to Anchorage after she fell in love with Alaska during a summer visit.

''Oh yes, his father knows,'' she told Myers and showed him the appropriate paperwork while the boy played a video game in the passenger seat of Journeay's dusty, packed Subaru. Satisfied, Myers let the pair pass.

For travelers suspected of serious offenses, the border station has a small holding cell. Most of the time inspectors let detained people read a magazine in the lobby. ''If you want to misbehave then you're going to the cage,'' he said.

Most of travelers are tourists. Henry and Emma Mosely were driving north to spend the summer in Fairbanks.

''We're snowbirds,'' he said. A sure sign of spring, the inspectors say.

Much of the traffic on the Alaska Highway is commercial. Trucks loaded with produce and other goods roll past, bound for stores in Fairbanks and Alaska. The truck drivers park their rigs and come inside with manifests. Sometimes inspectors ask to look inside the trailers.

''This is our master key,'' said Myers as he hefted a pair of bolt cutters.

Larry Zalomsky pulled into the border station loaded down with nearly 43,000 pounds of strawberries, cucumbers, squash and onions bound for Fairbanks' two Fred Meyer stores. He'll drop off his load, drive home to Anchorage, do some maintenance to his 2001 T800 Kenworth and look for a load of fish to drive out.

''I got tired of hauling equipment (to the North Slope) and started hauling groceries so I could be home more,'' he said. He's in Alaska about once a week now, he said.

Soon buses of tourists will be making their way north. They'll all get a careful inspection, as will other travelers. Since Sept. 11, both agencies have been on alert for terrorists, Harmon said. And U.S. Customs will increase the amount of border guards at all of the U.S. crossing points. He expects to hire five new inspectors in October, he said.

''We look at things a little more closer now.''

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