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Northwest Angle celebrates new border-crossing system

NORTHWEST ANGLE, Minn.—The solar eclipse was the big attraction Monday across most of the country, but here at the northernmost point of the Lower 48, where the eclipse was obscured by clouds, people gathered for a different reason.

With the waters and islands of Lake of the Woods as a backdrop, about 60 people attended a ceremony Monday afternoon outside Young's Bay Resort to mark the launch of a new border-crossing pilot project that aims to streamline the process for checking back into the U.S. from Canada in this remote part of Minnesota.

Crossing the border is a routine, if not daily occurrence for Angle residents and visitors because the area is bordered on three sides by Canada.

Among the dignitaries attending Monday's kickoff event were Michele James, U.S. Customs and Border Protection director of field operations, Seattle Field Office; and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., whose efforts in working with the CBP to bring the pilot project to the Angle were instrumental.

"This is an example of what government should be doing; that is working together with local people figuring out how to make things work and making it happen," Peterson said. "Too often nowadays, the government doesn't work that way."

How it works

The Northwest Angle is the first test area for the new remote border-crossing technology, which allows people entering the Angle from Canada to report to CBP via iPads that are online at several resorts on the mainland and on Oak and Flag islands.

The closest physical CBP crossings are north of Roseau and Warroad, Minn., both more than 50 miles away.

The pilot project offers an alternative to outdated remote border-crossing technology that has been in place at the Angle for several years. In the past, people had to report into the U.S. at one of three Outlying Area Reporting Station sites on the Northwest Angle mainland if they touched Canadian soil.

That meant anyone who ice fished the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods for the day or stopped on a Canadian island for shore lunch had to drive as far as 16 miles round-trip to the nearest OARS phone at Young's Bay if they were staying at Oak or Flag islands.

Now, reporting back into the U.S. is as simple as launching an app that's installed on the tablets at participating resorts and completing a face-to-face interview with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer via the Internet.

That's both safer and more convenient, said Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, who served as emcee for Monday's ceremony.

"We actually had to beat out a number of different markets that are across both our northern and southern United States border to get this pilot project, and Lake of the Woods got it," Henry said. "We're very happy about it, and we want to do a good job so we can flush out all the kinks and problems in the software and in the system so that this can be rolled out to the rest of the United States eventually."

Soft launch

A "soft launch" of the pilot project's first phase began last week, and six resorts on the Angle now have the tablets online. Eventually, more than a dozen resorts, both on the Angle and south shore of Lake of the Woods, will offer the technology as the bugs are worked out, Henry said.

Phase 2 of the project allows people crossing into the U.S. at the Angle to install the new OARS apps on their personal smartphones and contact a CBP officer that way.

Phase 3 calls for constructing three heated, air-conditioned buildings with the tablets and software installed to replace the outdated OARS phones at Jim's Corner, Young's Bay and Carlson's Landing.

Basically 1970s technology, the OARS phones are housed in rustic sheds that often require visitors to endure extreme weather or battle mosquitoes and horseflies as they wait to contact a border officer. The phones have two buttons: An American flag for people entering the U.S. and a Canadian flag for reporting into Canada.

Phase 2 now is available, with Phase 3 to follow next year, Henry said.

Long time coming

The push for new border-crossing technology at the Northwest Angle has been in the works at least four years, Henry said. Peterson, along with Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both D-Minn., and Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., all played roles in working with CBP to get the pilot project on Lake of the Woods, he said.

"We think this is going to be a win-win for all the stakeholders," Henry said. "Everybody has a different angle on this; tourism has a different angle than Customs and Border Protection. Everybody's got a job to do, and we certainly respect that. But we believe through the use of technology and the way they're doing this, that everybody is going to have an opportunity to win.

"It's a great thing when you have organizations working together."

Where it's available

The new border crossing technology at the Northwest Angle initially is available at six resorts, a number that will expand as the bugs are worked out. Resorts now offering the technology are:

• Jerry's Bar and Restaurant, Northwest Angle mainland at Young's Bay.

• Flag Island Resort, Flag Island.

• Sunset Lodge, Oak Island.

• Angle Inn Lodge, Oak Island.

• Angle Outpost, Northwest Angle mainland.

• Jake's Northwest Angle, mainland.

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