The border between Canada and the United States is the longest undefended border in the world, yet, of the 60 countries I have wandered through, it’s the one in which I have had the hardest time gaining entry.
At 5,525 miles long, there are over 120 official places where a traveler can cross the Canada border in a manner which is consistent with that of virtually any other border crossing in the world: Speak with a customs or immigration agent, display passport, visa, and proper documentation for onward travel or proof of funds, answer some background questions, and more likely than not you’re on your way.
For some, however, it isn’t always that easy.
In looking at the fine print, Canada has a trump card in their back pocket when it comes to admitting people into the country, and it all has to do with a condition of entry officially known as criminal inadmissibility. Go ahead. Look it up. It really isn’t that strange. The United States has one too.
According to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website, “If you have committed or been convicted of a criminal offence, you may not be allowed to enter Canada.” Such offenses listed include examples such as manslaughter, assault, theft, human rights violations, involvement in organized crime, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Ok, fair enough. If you’re a convicted criminal we won’t allow you into the country. I can agree with that. Murder, manslaughter, trafficking. I wouldn’t want that in my country either.
If you read more closely, however, according to the Wikipedia entry regarding American entry into Canada, “a single criminal conviction, no matter how minor or long ago, is grounds for exclusion from Canada.”
I mention this because it’s this fine print which provides the background for a rather curious sequence of events which took place in the spruce forests of the Yukon Territory.When driving from the Alaska into the Yukon there are only two main border crossings for the traveler to choose from. Neither of them, as you might imagine, are remotely close to anything at all. As far as the eye can see the border territory is a sea of spruce trees and uninhabited woodland, a scene which is unsurprising considering the Yukon is the size of Sweden and has a population of only 34,000 people.
Seeing as this comprises a measly .1% of the entire Canadian population, you would figure that crossing the border into Canada via the Yukon would be easy.
The first indication that something was amiss was when I encountered a forlorn man on a bicycle, his rig completely laden with saddlebags and long-distance gear, with the heaviest piece of equipment being the sense of despair worn across his face.
“Good luck in there”, he caustically growled. “That border guard’s having a bad day.”
“Did he not let you through or something?” I sincerely questioned.
“Nope. Making me turn around. Fifteen years ago I got in a fight. He’s calling it assault. It’s the only thing I’ve had on my record ever.”
This, you see, was problematic to the biker for a number of reasons: The nearest building, much less town, was nearly an hour away. By car. He was on a bike, and was already 800 miles into a two-year bike ride from the Bering Sea to Patagonia at the bottom of Argentina.
“I can’t believe he actually made you turn around, on a bicycle, out here in the middle of nowhere, while you’re fulfilling a life dream of biking to Argentina.”
“Tell me about it.”
“So what are you going to do now?” I wondered aloud.
“I don’t know. Maybe skip that whole Canada section.” With an exasperated wave of his hand he pedaled a lonely road back into the spruce forest.
Given this curious interaction I was hesitant to approach the border, even knowing that I was clean. Still, the process didn’t exactly go swimmingly.
“Good morning”, I nervously offered the border patrol agent, shocks of brown hair poking from beneath the gray beanie covering my head.
“You got anything in the car I should know about?”, countered the visibly perturbed officer.
“Um, no sir. I’m pretty sure we’re all good.”
Meanwhile, our passports had been run into the office for scanning, thereby leaving us at the officer’s whim until their eventual return.
He looked at my gray beanie. He looked at my haggard green truck I’d been camping in for the past 3 months. He looked at the bed in the back, the curtain on the campertop window, and my youthful, twenty-something appearance.
“So I’m not going to find any marijuana in here?” he pulled out of left-field.
“Nope” I replied with a smile, a little taken aback but confident in my response seeing as I’ve never touched a drug in my life.
“So no pipes, no papers, no bongs, no residue, no plastic baggies?”
This was starting to get weird.
“Ugh…no, you won’t” I matter-of-factly replied, slightly irked at the obvious profiling.
“You mind if I have a look?”
“Not at all”
Which is how I ended up waiting on wooden bench in the Yukon for nearly 30 minutes as a border patrol officer searched completely through my vehicle for some sort of illegal substance. This man didn’t just expect to something, it was almost as if he wanted to find something.
I came to find out later that when the officer inside ran my passport an alert was raised that I had previously been involved in a “drug-related arrest”, a charge I vehemently denied and later tracked to a disturbing computer error that nearly cost me entry into the country. Regardless, this error had never shown itself at the 30 or 40 border crossings previous to it, so why here in the middle of nowhere?
After an hour long saga amongst the spruce trees, the agent finally relinquished our vehicle amongst an uncomfortable feeling he was disappointed he couldn’t find anything on us.
Shaken, my wife and I crawled back into our forest green Toyota and made an unsettling drive to our campground in the Kluane National Park.
So what’s the lesson here?
If you’re considering traveling to Canada, think long and hard about if there’s anything which may preclude you from entering the country. DUI, fighting, that “stupid mistake you made in college.” Anything.
Because one day you might want to ride a bike to Argentina and find yourself pedaling backwards.
Want more stories? Read the rest of the Vagabond Tales here.