In Minnesota, an airport runway spans two countries

You must have to be a patient and forgiving sort to live near Roseau, on Minnesota’s northern border. People there have to put up with things we non-border people take for granted. The freedom to move around America, for example.

It took an around-the-country trip by a California teacher to tell me something about my adopted state that I didn’t know. There’s an airport in Minnesota on which a runway spans two countries, surrounded by some unwelcoming feds.

For the last few weeks, Scott Chastain has been writing installments in his travelogue of last month’s journey, during which he flew his homebuilt airplane around America, dropping in at small airports to discover the sort of wonders that mostly small towns possess. He eschewed hotels and depended on the kindness of people.

“What do you have in Solon Springs?” he asked a resident of that northwest Wisconsin town.

“We have a Dairy Queen,” the man replied.

Lesson: People are proud of what they have in their towns, as well they should be.

Along his journey, he encountered plenty of kindness, flying without any sort of plan of where he’d end up on any day.

And then he made it to Minnesota.

“There wasn’t a whole lot underneath me but marshland, lakes, and tundra as far as the eye could see,” he writes.

He wanted to land at Piney Pinecreek Border Airport, which is shared by Piney, Manitoba, and Pinecreek, Minn.

The airport once resided entirely within the United States, but when the runway needed extending, it could go only go across the 49th parallel.

When Chastain visited, his string of welcoming encounters around America ended.

“It was like something out of a dystopian novel,” he said.

I was wiping down the Dove, enjoying the beautiful greenery and the rolled-up hay bales, when suddenly an SUV with U.S. Customs markings pulled up. Leaving the engine running, an officer stepped out wearing combat fatigues and body armor.

He was a young guy. He didn’t look happy. In fact, he looked pretty stone-faced and too serious for his own good. I looked at his uniform. Stitched over his heart was the name, Miller.

“Good morning!” I greeted him. I was in a great mood. Then that guy showed up.

“Where are you coming in from?” he asked me. He looked at me like he was about to reach for his gun.

“Duluth,” I told him.

“Well, we don’t open until nine o’clock. Why didn’t you announce yourself coming in?”

I told him that I did announce myself. I told him that I announced myself 5 miles out, then on the 45-entry for runway 15. Didn’t he hear me?

Then he told me that I should have called ahead on the phone to let him know that I was coming. He repeated to me that the airport wasn’t open until nine-o’clock, and that I should have called him before landing.

“Yes, sir,” was all I could say. I felt like I was on the verge of being ordered to lie face-down on the pavement with my hands behind my head or something.

Then officer Miller told me, “Look. You see those tanks right there?” He was pointing at the fuel farm. I told him that, yes, I saw them. “Well if you walk past those, you’re in Canada, and you’re gonna be in trouble. Then if you try to walk back, you’re gonna be in even more trouble. You can use the restroom and get fuel if you need it, but stay on this side of the tanks. Got it?”

The reality and law is that Chastain was free to fly into the airport at any time he wanted. He’s an American, traveling on American soil. He didn’t need permission to use the restroom. He didn’t need permission to land. He didn’t need permission to buy fuel.

While the Customs office only opens at 9 a.m., Chastain wasn’t crossing a border (he would have if he’d traveled farther down the runway). Chastain was free to move about America.

“Okay, thanks,” I said. “Have a great day.” He didn’t reply. He just got into his SUV and drove off. That’s when I decided to use the restroom and get out of there before he changed his mind again and came back to arrest me, for God knew what.

I quickly climbed back into the plane and strapped in. It was clear that I was unwelcome and I could not wait to get out of there. Why in the world was there a rotating beacon and a lighted runway if you could only land there at certain times of the day?

I cranked the Dove over and rolled forward. As I was taxiing out, I saw the SUV racing toward the tarmac again. It was 9:00. There was a Piper coming in on final, and I waited for him to clear the runway before I back-taxied to runway 33. I didn’t waste any time blasting out of there. As I pulled the Dove back around and headed for Roseau, I looked down and saw Miller walking up to the Piper. A family was getting out of the plane, and I felt sorry for them.

In the rest of Minnesota, we have a freedom of movement we take for granted. Along Minnesota’s northern border, the law-abiding was suspect.

I apologized to Chastain for the attitude my state showed him. But it was all good, he said. His next stop was Roseau, and he got to tour the Polaris plant.

Welcome to America.

If you have time to kill today, there are few better ways to spend it than reading his travelogue, which starts here.

[Update 8:51 a.m. 9/1/16] From the MnDOT Office of Aeronautics, which owns the airport:

Actually, anyone can land at Piney-Pinecreek without permission. That is the definition of an airport that is open to the public. We visit Piney-Pinecreek on a fairly regular basis and Customs and Border Patrol always comes out to greet us. If they don’t I walk over and talk with them before doing anything else. Pilots should be sensitive about landing at border airports. For a while the FAA had a temporary flight restriction that required the filing of a flight plan for all flights operating in the vicinity of the border. I just looked for it and couldn’t find it, but border security is serious business and Customs and Border Patrol is not the welcome wagon. It is their job to be suspicious of people they encounter.

There is nothing at Piney-Pinecreek except the airport and a border crossing. As a pilot, I wouldn’t choose Piney-Pinecreek as a destination because there is no place to get food or aircraft maintenance, there are lots of nice airports in the area: Roseau, Warroad, that are welcoming and would have been a better choice. International Falls is a particularly fun airport to visit. The Einarsons are always welcoming and no airport in Minnesota takes better care of you. The only reason I would choose Piney-Pinecreek would be if it was along my route and I wanted quick access to Customs.

So I would apologize to your friend as I’m sure you did for the less than Minnesota like welcome he received. As for other pilots wanting to visit Piney-Pinecreek Airport: I recommend that they file flight plans and make announcements over the CTAF of their intentions. There are requirements that they stay in the aircraft if clearing customs at Piney-Pinecreek. If they are not clearing customs I recommend they talk with the Customs and Border Patrol agents before doing anything else. I also recommend that they only go there in daylight hours for two reasons. It is less suspicious, and the mosquitos are vicious at night.

Sincerely,

Rick Braunig
MnDOT Office of Aeronautics

  • BJ

    My trip to Canada last year introduced me to the humorless nature of the border patrol / customs officers – on both sides. I’ve crossed into Mexico 5-6 times and it was basically waved on through, not Canada.

    • Good to know. My wife and I plan on driving to Mexico next year…

      • BJ

        It probably has to do with volume and the fact that my grandfather took us to the ‘best crossing’ when going into mexico (last visit was May-June 2005), so after 9/11 but not within the last 10 years.

        • Where is the “best” crossing?

          /Probably crossing at Lukeville, AZ on US 8.
          //Planning on going to “Circus Mexicus”

          • BJ

            Texas -> Reynosa or Anzalduas ( I forget which)

          • Rob

            The best crossing is probably where they filmed the action sequences for The Rat Patrol. Properly equipped jeep – including swivel-mounted .50 cal, required…

          • Oddly enough, I have access to all of those things.

      • Renae

        It’s no joke. My sister and I drove from San Diego down to the Guadalupe Wine Valley and back. (Absolutely lovely, btw). The law states that California residents (aka my sister) are allowed 1 liter of wine to cross back into the states. Non-CA residents (aka me) are allowed 6. The border patrol agent detained us for quite a while, told us to shut up, told us we had the law wrong, searched our entire car, and completely bullied us until he finally just told us to “get out of here” and “next time each of us were only allowed one bottle of wine” (not true). I was pretty shook up by the whole thing, my sister says it happens every time she passes. The hotel we stayed at in Rosarito warned us we would be harassed no matter what.

      • Jeff

        I have Global Entry which is great getting back into the homeland at least at airports. I haven’t tried it on a land route but it appears from what I read to help quite a bit.

      • Rob

        Good luck on getting there and back before the wall goes up!

    • Mike Worcester

      I’m disappointed to hear that as I’ve flown into Canada four times in the last five years and each time I was treated with courtesy and respect and politeness by the Canadian Customs staff. (Maybe the airports are different than the land crossings. It’s been a while since I’ve crossed via vehicle.)

      Coming back into the U.S.? A *whole* other story.

    • Anna

      Watch “Border Patrol: Canada’s Front Line” on Netflix. It will give you a greater respect for the training these officers receive. They only have attitude if you show them attitude.

      And you’d better not have ANY criminal record of the felony type or you will not get over the border. If your behavior even hints that you’re hiding something, they will do a background check because they have reciprocity with the U.S.

      Canada has its act together. The U.S. could take a lesson.

  • jon

    https://www.aclu.org/constitution-100-mile-border-zone

    Same conversation could have happened in Duluth… Or even North Branch…

    • Mike Worcester

      Sorry, did not see you beat me to it. 🙂

  • >>“Good morning!” I greeted him. I was in a great mood. Then that guy showed up.<<

    Pretty much every encounter with US Border Patrol agents is summed up in this snippet.

    • John

      I have only interacted with the US Border Patrol once (outside of airports). Probably twice, actually – I drove to Alaska and back in 1998. So, once when I entered Alaska (though, I could have been 100 miles into Alaska before I found somebody – I don’t remember), and then somewhere north of Minot ND when I was driving home.

      I had a really pleasant experience entering back into ND. The two agents who interviewed us (I was driving my grandparents on a trip so they could see Alaska again) started giving me a bit of a hard time, but they were pleasant about it.

      Then, they let me know one of the guys grew up in Ely – which means my home town of Virginia was probably the closest movie theater – and he was basically thrilled to have stumbled onto someone from the area.

      I don’t think there was a lot going on at that border station in 1998.

      I also think things are different now. very different.

  • BReynolds33

    Yea freedom!

  • MikeB

    Security Theater, brought to you by the Department of Fear.

  • L. Foonimin

    Good example of the “Whistle and a Clipboard = Authority” syndrome

  • EarthToBobby

    Seems rather par for the course with US Border Patrol.

  • Mike Worcester

    //Then he told me that I should have called ahead on the phone to let him
    know that I was coming. He repeated to me that the airport wasn’t open
    until nine-o’clock, and that I should have called him before landing.

    What the? That’s certainly a new one.

    Not trying to divert the thread, but there is a 100 mile mark within all U.S. borders in which the border patrol can seemingly operate without restriction. (I understand that the BP is supposed to have oversight, but when I read articles like this:
    http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/5/border-patrol-immigrationmilitarizationhomelandsecurity.html
    it makes me wonder just who, if anyone, is conducting the oversight.)

    • The ACLU document does NOT state that the Border Patrol is allowed to operate without restriction. it notes that the Border Patrol often operates without paying attention to the law; that’s a different thing. This appears to be a case of going a bit rogue.

      48Y — the designation for the airport — is a so-called “landing rights airport” which is governed, not by the Border Patrol, but by the FAA. The law makes clear who is required to get permission to land at the airport and, as near as I can tell, it’s only private aircraft coming from outside the U.S.

      However, I have a request for clarification in to the Division of Aeronautics at MnDOT, which is the owner of the airport.

      • Mike Worcester

        Bob:
        I did amend my original comment to reflect that it is more of a perception than a reality. I certainly was not trying to imply that the Border Patrol is an agency with no supervision. Though when someone is pulled over 75 miles inside a border by a Border Patrol agent, it might seem a bit perplexing, yes? As for the pilot’s reception, it was amusing to me that a border patrol agent demanded a phone call prior to landing. I take it that’s not standing procedure for a private pilot? 🙂
        Thanks,
        Mike

        • The sad part is what would’ve likely happened if he asserted his rights.

  • KTN

    You know what else Solon Springs has besides a DQ (which is called Gerrys Ice Cream now). Lake St Croix, which is a geological oddity. It is a headwaters for two rivers. The St Croix flows out the south, and the Brule flows out the north. Now many other lakes sitting on a divide like this.
    I’ve got nothing on the whole border patrol agent, but it does seem like the whole intimidation thing among those wearing guns is not just for local law enforcement.

  • Anna

    Bob, I read part of the travel log this morning and I’m going to finish the rest of it tonight. It restored my belief that the overwhelming majority of Americans, especially those that live in small towns like Payne, Alabama and others are friendly, law-abiding citizens.

    Obviously, flying enthusiasts are some of the nicest people around and I think it is because they don’t stand in judgment of everyone and everything. They take to the open skies and have open minds as a result. They appear to trust people until they give them a reason not to.

    His travel log made my day and brought back pleasant memories of raising my son in a small Minnesota town.

    Thanks.

  • Jeff C.

    Not all boarder patrols are like this. This summer I drove into the US from Canada near Glacier National Park (Montana). The guard was the nicest guard I’ve ever encountered! She greeted our car with a smile, didn’t ask any questions besides friendly ones like, “Where are you headed?” She even stamped our passports. When I asked her why we haven’t gotten stamps at other crossings she told us that she was doing that just to be nice and that they are basically meaningless souvenir stamps. I thought of writing to her supervisor to let them know what a great job she did but I didn’t because I was worried that she’d get in trouble for being so friendly.

  • zzzzz78759

    Never, ever had a problem at (what I still call) the Pinecreek airport. You can land there any time. It’s a public airport.
    I wonder how much of this is perception. I have never seen a border agent (on the Canadian border) wearing body armor or combat fatigues. They have uniforms. I’ve never had one look at me like he was going to pull a gun. I’ve never had one make me feel like I was going to have to lie down on the pavement.
    I took my daughter there a few years ago. We drove in. It was the dead of winter, cold and snowy. I took a picture of her with one foot in the US and one in Canada. No one came out and told me not to.
    We then drove across the border for french fries with vinegar and root beer with everything written in English and French. We had a blast.
    On the way back, my daughter asked the border agent if he’d stamp her passport. Took some searching but he did find a stamp and stamp it for her.
    Yes, this was all at Piney/Pinecreek.
    Cute story but it just doesn’t ring true to me.

    • You’re saying you drove in? Have you flown in?

      Chastain has an update on his travelogue today. He called the supervisor. Supervisor said the airport doesn’t open until 9. Supervisor is wrong. Airport is open to people in the United States 24/7.

      Of course, you’d have to fly straight in from the southeast and stop before the fuel tanks (no problem in the kind of plane Chastain flies) or you’ll be coming in from Canada, in which case the airport doesn’t open until 9 a.m.

      • zzzzz78759

        Yes, we have flown in (many times) and yes, we’ve crossed the border. You don’t have to stop before the fuel tanks. As long as you don’t try to run the border, you can use all the runway you need and approach from whichever runway is appropriate.. You just turn and taxi back to the correct ramp. That’s why they extended it.
        I remember when they extended the runway and had a fly-in/grand opening of sorts. A big storm came through and damaged some of the airplanes on the ramp.
        There are two parking ramps. The north parking ramp is in Canada. The south parking ramp is in the US.
        The airport is jointly owned by Canada and the US.
        While it’s not required that pilots call ahead, it’s just good manners (and common sense) to do so, given that the airport crosses the border and is in a very rural area. The border patrol doesn’t monitor the unicom, that’s why the phone number is listed.
        Some border agents live at the border. Probably got the poor guy out of the shower.
        This statement, “In the rest of Minnesota, we have a freedom of movement we take for granted. Along Minnesota’s northern border, the law-abiding are suspect.” is completely false and the rest of the story is a bit melodramatic.

        • Meh. He’s writing about his experience. Who’s to say it wasn’t?

          • zzzzz78759

            Border agents do not wear combat fatigues or body armor. In northern Minnesota, we have the same freedom of movement we have in any other part of the state or the country.
            Those are the facts, not an individual’s experience.
            Have you ever flown into this airport? Or visited at all?

  • NorthWoodz

    Bob Collins, I would just like a chance to clear two items up for your readers that furthers a narrative that is damaging to not only one individual (which in my humble Minnesotan opinion deserves an apology), but also an entire agency.

    I am not to say who Mr. Chastain talked with or that he did or did not have a bad experience. What I can say is that I am from the area and I am an acquaintance of almost all of the staff that work at the US Ports of Entry in the NW Region of the State. There is only one Officer Miller in the entire area and that individual does not only NOT work at that location, but was not even working the day Mr. Chastain had his encounter. It is perplexing how a name can come out of nowhere! In a small community such as the NW area of the state this name is now being thrown around on local media and Mr Miller had to hear it from the grapevine of something he wasn’t even a part of!! Where is the due diligence of journalism sir when it comes to defamation of an individual?

    The second main error in this narrative which seems to be a common among people who live “inland” from a border community is the difference between Border Patrol and US Customs. Mr. Chastain did not encounter Border Patrol. The US Border Patrol outfits their personnel in a dark green uniform. They rove the countryside and “patrol”. Mr. Chastain most likely encountered an individual from US Customs who work at ports of entry and wear blue uniforms. I’m sure Mr. Chastain could clear that up pretty easily.

    Tell me, when you fly commercially are you allowed to just walk by security if you tell them you are flying domestically? No, you decided to present yourself for inspection the moment you went into the line. This is true for any international port of entry, regardless of size. Ignorance is not a scapegoat. He flew into an international port of entry and unfortunately according to the story had a not so pleasant encounter.