SCREWED BY AN OOSIK AT
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
By Barbara Bowers © 1995