Oxford County police are now patrolling the county’s rugged and mountainous border with Canada in search of illegal activity. “It’s only a matter of time until the patrols pay off,” says one.

PARIS – Just past nightfall in remote wilderness near Maine’s border with Canada, three small planes fly just above the treetops. The procession piques the interest of two men on the ground below.

It is the dead of winter, temperatures well below freezing. Both the men and the planes are miles and miles from civilization.

The men, local law officers on loan to the U.S. Border Patrol, make note of the aircraft, their location and other details, reporting the information to headquarters.

While the planes may be an innocuous coincidence – perhaps legitimate bush pilots bringing customers to a remote hunting camp – they may also be a band of baddies, smuggling drugs, people, firearms, booze or other contraband across America’s porous northern border.

Lt. Hart Daley of the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office watched a similar procession of planes recently in this huge stretch of forested land that is networked only by skidder trails and logging roads. He has documented snowmobile tracks going into and coming from Canada in regular intervals in wilderness locations.

“It’s vast, rugged country, much of it mountainous,” Daley said. He acknowledges that travel in the region is difficult and the options for criminal enterprise might best be pursued elsewhere.

Daley and 15 other local law officers from the Maine Warden Service, State Police, Rumford Police and Oxford and Franklin counties have been working overtime, riding snowmobiles and exploring a part of the state few have seen, while doing a new and unique duty paid for and equipped by a $770,000 federal grant. The money is part of a larger chunk of money from a federal bill passed in 2005 that provides Maine’s border counties with $5 million to boost defense.

In Oxford County, the funds will be used to patrol about 30 miles, which is 5 percent of Maine’s 600-mile border with Canada.

And while some have scoffed at the notion that anybody would try to sneak into the U.S. through the dense northern forest, Daley and his boss, Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant, said the mission is useful and some day may prove invaluable to national security or just plain public safety.

“I know for a fact that there are people coming and going,” Daley said. “They travel on foot, with snow machines or ATVs, in low-flying aircraft and often late at night.”

Daley and his colleagues have not arrested anybody doing anything illegal, but they have, so far, served as boots on the ground and as eyes and ears for the limited number of federal Border Patrol agents assigned to Maine’s meandering and wild border with Canada.

If nothing else, officers provide a new and often welcome presence, both Daley and Gallant said.

“One of the greatest deterrents to crime is visibility,” Gallant said.

The officers are also rapidly becoming familiar with the area and, among other things, checking on hunting camps and cabins, watching for vandalism or theft. They are a resource for Maine and Canadian loggers working in the area, and have recorded thefts of chain saws, skidder chains and batteries, Daley said. “I see it as an additional service for the taxpayers of Oxford County and those who own property in that area.”

They don’t typically spend the night, but the officers have made use of some cabins used by the Maine Warden Service in the area to hunker down on occasion. “We also have enough cold-weather gear that we can dig in and make snow caves and spend the night,” Daley said. “You have to like the outdoors.”

They have seen signs of “cross-border activity,” such as the airplanes, Gallant said. “There’s no doubt that people are crossing the borders in our portion.”

While the funding – part of a bill co-authored by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine – has been available since 2005, Gallant applied to participate last year and was approved.

The money pays overtime for the officers who volunteer for the duty. It also has paid to equip the officers with two snowmobiles, a trailer, cold-weather gear, a pair of hand-held GPS units, vehicle maintenance and fuel. The officers regularly file reports and statistics with Border Patrol, he said. So far, the officers have mapped via GPS much of the area as well.

Their biggest mission is to be available to assist federal officers if needed, Gallant said.

“There’s so many miles of border and so few agents, we are there to complement those agents,” Gallant said. The 30-mile meandering stretch of border with Oxford County is the same as the distance between Rumford and Paris. “If you think about it, that’s a lot of distance to cover and this in a very remote and rugged section.”

County officers also offer a level of backwoods experience that border agents don’t always have when they first arrive on station, Gallant said “These agents, most of them, work on the southern border on their first assignments,” he said. “In most cases, you have a local who is more familiar with the terrain and we usually have a lot more experience operating ATVs and snowmobiles.”

Gallant said it’s not a stretch to think terrorists might try to enter the United States from Canada. After all, two of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks holed up in a South Portland hotel before flying to Boston, where they boarded one of the two jetliners flown into the World Trade Centers, Gallant said. Maine is not immune, and if you were looking for a place to get into the country where nobody would see you, you couldn’t pick a better place than the wilds of Oxford County, Gallant said.

“It’s only a matter of time until the patrols pay off,” he said. “Some sort of seizure will be made eventually.” Other officers on the detail in other parts of the state have already helped with drug seizures and stopping people from illegal entry into the country, Gallant said.

For his part, Daley says the work is interesting and challenging.

“You are away from your normal patrol vehicle and any close proximity to civilization. You have to be prepared for cold and changes in the weather.”

Many of the officers doing the work are outdoors people to begin with, but even so, they are learning valuable wilderness skills that would easily transfer to their regular jobs, Daley said. Whether it be chasing a convict on the lamb in the wilderness or assisting in a search and rescue effort for a lost hunter or child, knowing how to move and live in the woods and gaining a familiarity with the terrain is invaluable, he said.

“It’s relatively new but I’m sure we will be coming across some interesting situation as we are up there more and more,” Daley said. “We have the equipment now to do it and the gear to do it and the knowledge.”

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