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14 clubs And A Passport Needed At This Club

A walk from the pro shop to the club house, or looking for your lost ball between the 4th and 6th fairways, are becoming international incidents for golfers at this course where U.S. national security seems more important than your golf score or a good time.

It was never a problem back in 1929 when the Aroostook Valley Country Club became a popular course place to play, where Americans could avoid a thing call prohibition and enjoy a pint or two after playing 18 holes in Canada, much like they used to at Peace Portal in South Surrey.

Then on 9/11 in 2001 along came something far worse than prohibition. We'll let Chicago Tribune correspondent, Jason George, pick up the story from there.

By JASON GEORGE
Chicago Tribune correspondent

Shank your shot at this one-of-a-kind golf course and you can find yourself chasing your ball across the U.S.-Canadian border.

It's a unique -- technically, law-breaking -- hazard to playing at the Aroostook Valley Country Club, nears Ft. Fairfield, Maine, where the parking lot and pro shop are in Maine, and the course and clubhouse sit in New Brunswick, Canada. It's also a 79-year tradition that could soon change, as U.S. Customs and Border Protection wants to prevent Canadian golfers from entering the United States near here without passing through Immigration. U.S. officials argue that anyone--including terrorists --could gain unfettered access to the United States via the rural road the golfers use.

Such a flap used to be unheard of along the 5,525-mile line commonly called the world's longest undefended border. Today however, Aroostook Valley stands as just one example of how security concerns are changing the frontier along America's northern divide. From Washington to Maine, the Border Patrol is signing up recruits, buying more tools, from motion sensors to helicopters, and enforcing new identification requirements like never before. Already, the number of agents on the northern border has increased 341 percent since Sept. 11, 2001.

"Our manpower is allowing us to monitor and handle situations we haven't been able to before," said Lloyd Easterling, the Border Patrol's assistant chief for border security operations.

In Washington state, the buildup means more horseback patrols throughout the state's arid desert area. Across the Great Lakes this summer, the Border Patrol has increased its boat-based presence to dissuade smugglers and redirect day-trippers who unknowingly motor into Canadian waters. In Maine, agents are serving longer and more frequent rotations in the remote North Woods region.

"We're really looking at anything or everything that could be wrong between the ports of entry," Easterling added.

About 1,500 agents now patrol the northern border--still small compared to 16,000 who work along the U.S.-Mexico divide -- but an increase from 340 before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Border Patrol officials say those increased numbers are already showing successes, such as the fact that apprehensions along the northern border have decreased every year since 2001.

"We're out there more and a greater deterrent," Easterling said.

Such strides are not without their problems: The Border Patrol reports that the number of violent incidents has increased by nearly 70 percent this year, as smugglers seek new ways across. Last month a Border Patrol agent shot at a man near the Vermont-Quebec line, after the man allegedly assaulted him. It was the third such Border Patrol shooting this year in that 295-mile sector.

That latest incident occurred in the village of Derby Line, Vt., already straining under the new border restrictions. Founded in 1791, Derby Line sits on the U.S. border, sharing roads and resources with Stanstead, Quebec. Its Haskell Free Library and Opera House, for example, has its front door in the United States and its checkout desk in Canada.

Last year, after U.S. Border Patrol stopped two vans from Canada in Derby Line, carrying 21 illegal immigrants from Latin America and South Asia, federal officials proposed shutting down streets the countries share. U.S. inspectors also began searching every car that passed through the town's official crossing, causing delays on both sides.

"It was bad," said Roland Roy, Derby Line's pharmacist, who said agents have recently stopped inspecting every car.

"Things have improved here, but they're still talking about closing those streets. We just think it's unnecessary."

In Ft. Fairfield, Americans formed the cross-border Aroostook Valley Country Club in 1929 to escape prohibition -- they'd play in Canada, knock back a few and then walk back to the dry United States. The Border Patrol was born just five years earlier, largely to enforce prohibition.

Steve Leitch, a Canadian citizen and the club's current golf pro and general manager, said he would rather worry about the course's sand traps than the border issue, although he's optimistic that members of Canada's parliament and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) have weighed in on the affair -- and all support a compromise of adding a seasonal port of entry near the course.

Leitch added that it's not just golfers who benefit from the course, but the rural area, known for its potato farming and poverty.

"Everybody here realizes that the world changed after 9/11," Leitch said. "But all we're asking is that a little common sense be used; it's not black and white."

The man who prides himself on seeing the world in black and white, and the Border Patrol official responsible for the new proposal, is Joseph Mellia, chief agent for the sector that includes all of the Maine-Canada border. Mellia points out that last summer a Maine man was arrested for buying drugs from a Canadian golfer at Aroostook Valley -- pills he purchased between the 4th and 6th holes and hid inside a box of golf balls.

"This was drugs, but terrorists are always my greatest concern," he said. "It's not 1924 anymore; it's 2008. The world has changed."

jageorge@tribune.com




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