We laughed when the Border Patrol told us we were subject to a major fine and arrest if we ate our lunch on the left side of the St. Croix River. We had been landing on “the Canadian side” since we discovered the perfect little river about 15 years ago.

The St. Croix forms the border between the United States and Canada, but no one ever paid attention to formalities, especially when it was Canada Day and dozens of bikini-clad paddlers joined the fun.

Canada always had the better campsites, complete with cement pads for the picnic tables, so we stopped on that side more often than not. We always stopped at Loafer’ s Lodge, on the U.S. side, since it was about halfway between the Vanceboro put-in and Little Falls. There always seemed to be a great party there with a 50-50 mix of Americans and Canadians. One year, there was a particularly hard-partying group at the lodge.

I suggested that they should be careful of “the cops.”

“These are the cops,” said one participant, in a Canadian shirt and hat.

Oh, Canada.

Things have changed. On our trip to Vanceboro last year, we rented the same Loafer’ s Lodge for the weekend. When we made a border crossing for breakfast and duty-free liquor, we made such an impression that one agent followed us back to the cabin. Anyone carrying a handgun always gets my close attention.

“Yes, sir.”

He pretended to be interested in us and our excursion but he never took his eyes off the river. We offered him a cold beer, since it was 90 degrees and the Loafer’ s Lodge code required such an invitation.

He kept the conversation going, declined the beer and kept his eyes on the river for probably an hour, then left.

It was true that you could stroll across the river there in about two minutes and enter Canada. Sure, we heard rumors, but the notion of anyone swimming terrorists, illegal aliens or dope into Maine across the innocent St. Croix seemed far-fetched. We decided that the Border Patrol officers were just bored and overdramatized their jobs. We laughed off the concept.

Wrong again.

It couldn’ t have been two weeks later when the feds busted Michael Pelletier, 51, of Madawaska for running a dope smuggling operation. Pelletier was convicted in federal court of hiring “swimmers” to carry backpacks of marijuana across the St. John River into Maine. He is serving a sentence now at Maine State Prison for drug trafficking, money laundering and Social Security fraud.

The loads consisted of 60 pounds of marijuana, purchased for about $60,000 in Canada and sold for about $120,000 in Maine. Swimmer Adam Hafford testified in court that he made the trip every week or two. Witnesses said the Pelletier home was filled with grocery bags full of money.

Federal officials said that as other border crossings become more closely watched, the Maine-Canada connection has been targeted by smugglers.

Even though the drug smuggling occurred on the mighty St. John River, no one is laughing about river smuggling on the St. Croix any longer.

No one is planning any picnics on the Canadian side of the river any longer, either. Imagine going to prison for “illegal picnicking.”