What he said didn't register: "I'm sorry ma'am, but you can't bring that with you into Canada."

I stare at him blankly. The customs officer is smiling, so he must be joking; right?

"I am sorry, but you can't bring an oosik into Canada. If you like, you can go back to Alaska and mail it to the lower 48. But you cannot drive into Canada with it."

Wrong, he’s not kidding. And the 60 mile drive back to Tok, Alaska — the nearest US post office open on this particular day — is no joke either. Why, just the 20 miles separating the United States from this Canadian port of entry, which happens to be the widest border crossing at any point between the two countries, is the worst dust-eating, butt-bumping road I've ever traveled. Making that two and half hour drive... again…requires some thinking.

"Please, take your time. Just pull out of line, park over there, and let me know what you decide."

Just what I need: A courteous, thoughtful customs officer. A jerk would make me angry, but no, this guy has to be Mr. Nice Guy and now, I have to be rational.

The hot August sun pierces billowing clouds and blazes through the windshield. The slowly moving line of cars stirs up dust particles that turn the streaming sunbeams into impenetrable walls. Loki, my Labrador traveling companion, pants ferociously. I feel trapped. I want to gag. Mostly, I don't want to drive back to Tok.

I had just purchased the oosik this morning in Tok, the last Alaskan outpost before taking on the Alcan Highway to drive back through Canada. The oosik had cost a whopping $82.50. Never mind that I had traveled the whole state of Alaska and had made a last minute, emotional decision to buy. Never mind that I knew I paid the highest price for an oosik in all of Alaska, and never mind that, even at that price, the oosik was on sale.

What really slays me is only three people know what an oosik is: The shop owner who sold me the bone; me, who has researched laws pertaining to products made from endangered species; and the customs agent who wants to take away the walrus bone; more specifically, the walrus' penis bone.

Yes, I had purchased the very essence of walrus masculinity. Something very simple: roughly the size and shape and rigidity of a Billy club; the envy of lesser endowed males; and the subject of northerly poems and songs. No doubt, an item few people on earth would recognize.

But for some strange reason, in my mind, a walrus' penis bone and its ivory tusks don't fit into the same legally protected paragraph. Especially when moose skulls, caribou antlers, trophy grizzly bear heads, wolverine pelts and ermine tails are for sale in every Alaskan shop.

Besides: How can shop owners anywhere in the US sell me anything from any protected species? After all, only Third World rogues get away with that kind of stuff. And why can I mail it from the United States, but not from Canada? Aren't walrus protected in the United States, too? How come the shop owners didn’t feel compelled to mention its protected status? How can I be so stupid?

I need answers: I carry the wrapped oosik indoors and formally surrender my contraband to the Canadian Customs officer for information.

Alas, very little is forthcoming.

Oh, the customs official is as helpful as possible; he just doesn't know why I can buy or mail an oosik in the United States. Here on the last frontier’s border, in the very heart of the wilderness, Canadian authorities simply don't want to speculate on another country's laws. But of one thing Mr. Nice Guy is absolutely certain: I cannot bring an oosik into Canada.

Upon returning to the United States through the border crossing into South Dakota, US Customs officials there have no more answers than did the Canadians. They give me a booklet, Know Before You Go, which is equally vague about wildlife. They mention that they think Native Americans in Alaska can kill and sell parts of animals as art. (This is true, and it's outlined under Alaskan Subsistence laws.) But the agents are unsure of specifics. They say maybe Canadian officials would not have taken the oosik if I had had a note from the Native American who sold it to me. Problem is, the couple who owns the shop and sold me the oosik weren't Native Americans.

Back home, customs agents in the Midwest can't clarify matters any further, furthermore, they don't know what an oosik is. Because customs officials check border crossings for some 40 different United States agencies, detailed information about one agency's policies is hard to come by. Info’s out there somewhere, but in this particular case, I will have to call Fish and Wildlife, or the Department of Agriculture, or...what's a traveling shopper to do?

Even as borders are being more closely scrutinized for terrorists, the best advice I could get is "call the customs office immediately before you buy."

Yeah, right. Even the customs official who offered this nugget of knowledge thought it was unlikely I'd put my impulse to buy, say, a puma-claw necklace from a Chilean street vendor on the back burner while I hunt down a phone.

Like me, thousands of uninformed tourists loose their souvenirs coming or going. And becoming informed is no easy task. When in doubt, flip that coin you might otherwise use to make a phone call, and remember: You take your chances when you buy anything that used to breathe.


By Barbara Bowers © 1995