O Canada….is Burning. And Tales of a Covid-19 Border Crossing

August 14, 2021
Yesterday it was 100F in Houston. Not unusual in August, eh? Except this was Houston, British Columbia, about 500 miles north of the Washington State-Canada border.

Yes, we are in Canada. And headed for Alaska. It was not the easy border crossing it used to be pre-Covid. In fact, overall it took us six days and a bunch of money to get across. But more on that later. Let’s back up and pick up where we left off, about ten days ago.

We left our Columbia Falls, Montana house sit, after picking up the homeowners from the airport. We spent six days in their beautiful home with two awesome cats, and we were sad to be leaving.

Kelly and Brian with Jack. We absolutely loved this house-sit and the cats.

After leaving Columbia Falls, we spent a night on Flathead Lake. Directly across the lake was the Boulder 2700 Fire, and people from over there were being evacuated to Polson, about seven miles south of our campsite.

The Miracle of America Museum

Just outside Polson is this collection of “stuff”, for lack of a better description, that I had heard about and just had to see. Gil Mangels has been interested in “old stuff” his entire life, and has been collecting items for most of it. The collection has grown to over 40 separate buildings on the property. Just the main building has enough interesting items in it to spend a couple of hours looking through, including old motorcycles, a complete old soda fountain shop, tons of military paraphernalia, and so much history that words can’t do it justice. In fact, I struggle to try to describe the enormity of what is here. Some would say much of it is “junk”, but there is a ton of history in the oddball items Gil has saved. And then there are the items that he has created, under the name of Spoof Creations. Outside of the dozens of buildings, there are also a lot of vehicles, military vehicles, aircraft, boats, tractors, and more.

One wall of one of the outbuildings at the Miracle of America Museum. Those are snowmobiles stacked on the wall. Gas-powered model airplanes hang from the ceiling.

That is a 1970s Polaris SnowBird Airsled. Powered by a Lycoming aircraft engine, it was an air-driven snowmobile. I had never seen one of these before.

The UFO and Alien section included an Alien Autopsy room.

Gill even took the time to give us a bit of a personal tour of the motorcycle section, as it is truly one of his passions as well. He has some nice bikes, including an Indian 4-cylinder with a sidecar, a Henderson 4, a Harley VLD, and a lot of bikes that brought back memories for me. As I said, I can’t do this place justice, but perhaps this video helps.

To Alaska or Not to Alaska

After weighing our options and looking at available days, we decided to try to get into Canada, and head for Alaska. It will be a shorter time spent up there than we had originally hoped, but it is still possible to hit all of our highlights before the weather turns (we hope!).

The border was set to open to vaccinated Americans on Monday, August 9th, so we had a few days yet to wait. In the meantime, we were required to get a PCR Covid test within 72 hours of our border crossing.

First problem: we planned to cross from Bonners Ferry, Idaho into British Columbia at Rykerts. There were no places up there to get a Covid test. So we checked near Columbia Falls and Whitefish, Montana. There was a Walgreens in Kalispell that offered the test, but they were booked solid. The more we searched, the less we found. Finally we located a RiteAid pharmacy in Spokane Valley, Washington that had available appointments. So we made the appointments for Saturday morning (this was on Wednesday), and started heading back towards Spokane.

On Saturday morning, we got our tests. The woman at the pharmacy told us that we could expect the results typically in one to three days, but sometimes it took as much as seven days. This worried us a bit, but we decided to remain positive (our outlook, not our Covid status), so we left the RiteAid and headed north to Bonners Ferry to camp out until Monday morning. If our negative results arrived by Sunday, we would get in line at the border early Monday morning and be some of the first to cross (at this checkpoint anyway). We technically had until Tuesday afternoon to cross within our 72 hour time limit.

We had rented a small cabin outside of Moyie Springs, Idaho for two nights from AirBnB. We were sure we would have our results by Monday morning and would head for the border, which was about 30 miles away.

This little cabin was very comfortable, well built, and nicely furnished. It served as home for a couple of days while we awaited the results of our (first) Covid PCR tests.

Inside of the cabin. While there is a loft, there is also a bedroom under the loft, and a full bath.

This is the view out the front of the cabin.

By Sunday night, we were starting to get nervous. By Monday at noon, we had to check out of our cabin, and still had no results, so we booked the couple’s other accomodation: a 35-foot fifth wheel trailer that had been converted to a tiny home, for Monday night. If we had no results by Tuesday, we would be outside the 72 hour window and would have to start over.

Tuesday morning we still had no results. I looked online again for a place to take another test. The nearest available appointment was in Polson, Montana, (yes, same Polson as the museum above…we were going in circles), over 150 miles away. And the more we thought about it, the more likely we would end up in the same predicament: Polson is a small town. We had no idea where the lab was located that our tests would go to from Polson. Getting the samples to the lab could take a day or two to be collected and delivered. If the lab was busy (they all seemed to be), we could once again blow our 72 hour window. The tests were free, but the hotels/AirBnBs/campgrounds were not, and it was beginning to add up.

We decided we needed a different approach. Diana located an operation in Seattle that was guaranteeing lab results next day (or same day) for a fee. While we hated to spend a lot more money, each day we spent waiting was adding up. So we left Idaho and headed back — one more time — to Seattle. It was painful to be spending all of this time going back and forth on the Interstate, wearing tires, adding miles, costing fuel.

By Wednesday morning we had paid for our same-day results, gotten tested, and headed north to Lynden, Washington, just fifteen miles south of the Abbotsford, BC crossing, and set up camp while waiting for our results. (By the way, my negative result from the RiteAid test had arrived Tuesday afternoon, but Diana’s didn’t show up until early Wednesday morning, making them moot anyway.) Our Seattle test results arrived Wednesday evening, and we filled out the information in the ArriveCAN app. It looked like we had everything in place for a Thursday morning crossing.

We arrived at the border at 8:30am, and were surprised to see just one motorhome and two cars ahead of us in the “Alaska Only” line.

Number four in line at the border. This won’t take long at all! (Cue the fading optimism)

We sat in line for about twenty minutes before a border guard came out and told us that if we had all of our documentation we could move to the other open line, as it would be faster. So two of us (out of the four) moved over there. And sat there and watched the other line start moving much faster. It was just like the bank or the grocery store!

Finally it was our turn. I pulled up to the window and handed over our passports. Then came the questions:

“Why are you going to Alaska?”

I wasn’t prepared for that one. “Um, because we can?” Probably a bad answer, so I added “And we’ve never been?” (Not entirely true, but close enough).

“Are you carrying any firearms, ammunition, knives, bear spray, brass knuckles, or other weapons?”

“Uh, no?” Probably shouldn’t have answered it as a question. He looked at me a little doubtful. “I mean, No.”

“Any cannabis?”

Again, wasn’t prepared for that one. “Excuse me?”

“Any cannabis? Marijuana?”

“Oh. Um, no.”

“Are you sure? Because you kind of hesitated.”

“I didn’t know you could even do that up here.”

“Oh yeah. It’s legal.”

I didn’t know if it was or not, but the way he said it sounded like bait, and I wasn’t taking it. “Still no. Nothing.”

“Okay”, he said. “Everything is in order. I just need to see your negative test results.”

I pulled up the letter on my phone and handed it to him. He looked at it closely. “This is dated yesterday. You took the test yesterday, and you got the results yesterday?”

“Yes, and it wasn’t cheap”, I said.

He looked surprised. “What do you mean? I thought all Americans can take the test for free?”

“Yes, that’s true, but you might not get the results within 72 hours. So we paid for these.”

That apparently was the wrong explanation. In hindsight, it sounded like we paid for negative results. He handed my phone back to me, and reached behind him. He set two boxes on the window ledge. “Take these two test kits to the tents ahead of you, and they will administer the tests. If for some reason they are closed, you have 24 hours to perform the tests and submit them to the lab.”

Ugh. Our third set of PCR tests in five days.

Sure enough, the testing area was closed. We rode a few miles into Abbotsford and found a McDonalds and sat down and read the kit information. We would have to make an appointment with an online test official, perform the test by video link, then deliver them to a lab, all within 24 hours. Then we would wait up to three days for results. All the while we were to keep a list of anyone and everyone we came into contact with, and have a quarantine plan in case our results came back positive.

We actually made the video appointments for the tests right there in McDonalds, and within an hour we had performed our tests and sealed the swabs in the packaging. I located a lab about a mile away where we could drop the kits. Although it was a hassle, it could have been worse. But it did feel a little like being back in Bolivia, where Americans were, well, less than welcome.

By noon we were headed north. It was close to 100 degrees, and the smoke from the wildfires was terrible. In many places visibility was less than a quarter mile. It seemed like all of Canada, or at least the southern half of British Columbia, was on fire.

The view heading up Highway 1, the TransCanada Highway, north of Chilliwack. We had to go the long way around to avoid a worse fire that had destroyed the little town of Lytton.

We rode in fairly dense smoke for most of the day. When we stopped for fuel in Merritt, ash was raining down on us and the sky was glowing orange. It was a long day, but we ended up in Quesnel, BC at Roberts Roost, an RV park with a nice large grassy tent area and some trees. The smoke was mostly gone, and it felt good to have the border behind us.

6 thoughts on “O Canada….is Burning. And Tales of a Covid-19 Border Crossing

  1. The Miracle of American museum!! How did we miss this place when we rode up to Glacier a few years ago? Probably because we did not know about it… Just the UFO display alone would sucker me in but looking at the video, I could get lost in there for days – how did you pull yourself away? No alternative but to go back up that way…

    Seems to me that the last time you rode to Alaska, fires were a problem. I think we now know the common denominator…

    You may not have to worry about the weather closing in – I suspect Fall might be later this year.

    • I actually remember riding right past it on our trip several years ago, and thinking, “Wow. That place is weird.” But I got sucked in this time, and it was well worth it. But it is definitely overwhelming. There is a break room in the middle of the main building that you can take a breather once in a while. It takes several of those to make it through, and I still didn’t see it all.

      So far, the fires seem to be mostly in southern BC. I hope it remains that way for us anyway, as the last couple of days have been smokeless, but today was rainy.

      Looks like occasional snow showers at Prudhoe Bay…still would like to make it up there, but not sure the (ahem) passenger has the intestinal fortitude for the weather/temperature. We’ll see. Definitely one day at a time at this point.

  2. Your conversation with the border guards reminds me of several work trips I made to Canada some years ago when I was hired by Canadian companies (perhaps one you know) for engineering consulting engagements. However, when I stated the purpose of my trip to the guard at the entry point, his immediate response to me was something like, “aren’t there engineers in Canada that can do that job”, “please step aside and follow this guard for an interview”… hours later and many calls to the client and I was on my way. I found that the “code phrase” to enter without issue was, “I am attending a business meeting and the items I brought are to discuss at the meeting”. Finally I found out that there was an “act” that applied to that situation and documents could be prepared by the Canadian client ease that issue. But even then, I still had to endure that “please follow me” routine with 20 additional questions.

    It is amazing that no matter how you answer the questions, they always produce more questions that leave you on the defensive. “Brass Knuckles”, huh? Just how many folks are carrying them these days, anyway?

  3. Wow. It seems Canadians are uneasy about all the Americans coming across their border. Lol.

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