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Kayaker seized in bid to cross river to Canada

With fast-moving chunks of ice, frigid river temperatures and severe undertow, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would try crossing the Niagara River at this time of year.

And in a kayak, no less.

A man from El Salvador did exactly that Thursday, and while he made it safely across to Canada, he now finds himself in trouble with the law.

Even worse, perhaps, the man is accused of sending police on a wild goose chase looking for four other kayakers who didn’t exist.

“I’m not sure what his motivation was,” said U.S. Border Patrol Agent Matthew Bitterman. “We do know that, when he was arrested, he said there were four other individuals with him who he had lost contact with.”

A 90-minute search of the Niagara Gorge by several law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border turned up nothing, and video recordings later revealed the man crossed alone.

The man, whose name is being withheld, was arrested by Canadian authorities at about 3 p.m. Thursday, shortly after he arrived in Queenston, Ont., just across the river from Artpark in Lewiston.

Bitterman said the 30-year-old El Salvador resident was living legally in New York City and apparently came here with the intention of making his way across the border without going through Customs.

“He traveled here to specifically cross illegally into Canada,” he said.

Bitterman said there is no question that the man knew what he was doing was illegal and that others - two, this year alone - have tried the same thing.

Two weeks ago, a man from China tried to cross into Canada using a plastic raft with a bicycle on board.

And in January, a Canadian was caught trying to cross the river into the United States using a stolen canoe and paddling with a shovel.

“They know what they’re doing,” Bitterman said. “People travel here all the time thinking they can make an excursion into Canada.”

Border protection officials say the three episodes should serve as a reminder of the dangers associated with crossing the Niagara at any time of the year.

Even in the summer, the risks are great.

Bitterman still remembers one man, a Cuban national, who almost drowned last summer while trying to swim across the river near the International Railroad Bridge in Buffalo.

The man was wearing a life vest but soon became overwhelmed by the current. He was rescued by a Border Patrol Marine Unit after someone heard him screaming for help and called police.

“There’s always a current,” Bitterman said of the fast-moving Niagara. “And there’s always an undertow.”

Like the man who almost drowned, it was a concerned citizen who tipped police off to the kayaker who crossed into Canada on Thursday.

The eyewitness told law enforcement that he watched as the man took the kayak out of his car, entered the river near Artpark and slowly made his way across the Niagara.

Bitterman said the call came into the Border Watch Tip Line – there are signs everywhere asking people to call if they see anything suspicious – and was quickly funneled to the Integrated Border Enforcement Team, a task force of U.S. and Canadian law enforcement agencies.

“We say, ‘See something, say something,’ ” he said of the valuable tips they get each year. “It’s great that people call us.”

Border Patrol agents on the U.S. side responded to Artpark in search of other suspects, while Canadian Border Services began looking for the kayaker from El Salvador.

Given the cold weather and the conditions of the river – ice, frigid temperatures and fast currents – the man’s claims about other missing kayakers was taken very seriously, Bitterman said.

“It’s always a risk,” he said of the Niagara.

Canadian authorities did not return calls seeking comment.