By Gretchen Wehmhoff
In 1981, after college, my friend Marcus and I drove home to Alaska. The adventure is a story in itself, but the relevance today is that it was my first lesson in what not to say to border officers.
Traveling from Chicago and Denver, we met up in Tacoma where my duplicate driver’s license would be mailed to my grandmother’s home. The license arrived a day after we planned to leave, causing us to lose our ferry reservation to Haines then travel standby during tourist season.
We crossed into BC as two twenty-somethings with no money, his uncle’s VISA and my new driver’s license with the words “valid without photo” in bold letters substituting for my face.
After tent camping for three days in the rain and not moving up the ferry standby list, we decided to park and sleep in the vehicle boarding line. The last night of camping was so miserable that when we packed the tent, we just shoved it in with the wet tarps and jumped on the hatch. The car, a small Datsun F10, was stuffed to the seams with the tent, sleeping bags, wet tarps, a guitar, saxophone, a record collection, suitcases and my turtle traveling in a small red tackle box. The back seat was down and the contents were pushed against the roof and our backs. Forget using the rearview mirror.
A U.S. customs agent worked his way up the ramp of cars headed for Alaska. He stopped at our vehicle and asked the standard questions: where are you going, where do you live, any weapons?. I answered each question calmly until the last question.
“Do you have any pets?”
I froze. My turtle. Was the turtle illegal? Would I have to give her up? Instead of answering yes or no, I threw out a mouthful of stupid.
“Yeah, there’s a German Shepherd in the back seat,” I smirked. Obviously we didn’t have any pets. Just look at this car.
The agent didn’t see the humor. They never do. Don’t try.
“Ma’am, I need you and your passenger to step out of the car.”
We stepped out. Marcus didn’t see the humor either.
“Why did you say that?”
“I dunno. I panicked.”
The officer took our IDs, looked at the car and told us to empty it. All of it. Everything.
For the next ten minutes we pulled our lives out for display. The guitar, saxophone, tent, clothes, and yes, the small red tackle box with air holes drilled into the sides.
We stood there waiting in the rain. The agent came back, handed us our IDs and, without even looking at the contents of the car, told us to pack it up and move forward in the line. He made his point. To this day I don’t mess with customs agents. Ever.
So when on July 21 I headed towards the Alaska/Canada border during a pandemic, I did my research to make sure I had all my ducks in a row.
My business partner, Melinda, and I took ownership of The Skagway News on March 3. Within a week the world went wild: a global pandemic, cancelled cruise ships, hunker down orders and on March 21, the closing of the U.S./Canada border. I had planned on leaving Skagway later, but with no assurances that I would be able to cross the border, I headed home to Chugiak early. The plan was to return in the summer when we would finish setting up the business and roll through the tourist season.
The border remained closed and the cruise ships never came. Eventually, I needed to get back to Skagway. Melinda’s life was stressful enough with several children with special needs and cancelled school. She needed a break and I had work to do on the computers. We had decisions to make and tasks to accomplish.
I planned carefully. My 2017 Chevy Sonic held boxes of specific food to meet my allergy needs, a sewing machine (rather than a kitchen sink) and items I needed in Skagway. My door pocket held disposable gloves for fueling the car, sanitizer and bug repellant. I had camp chairs, a coffee pot for propane cooking and a 5-gallon honey bucket with plastic liners. I was self-contained.
Athena, my 12 ½ year old dog was coming, so add dog food in a 5-gallon container, extra water and the modified front seat. She had been on practice drives for the past two months, usually a four-hour drive to our cabin on the Kenai Peninsula where she was rewarded with endless exploring and sniffing on our property.
In addition, I had paperwork showing I was a Skagway business owner, the required vet documentation for Athena and a smile.
With construction and pilot cars, the trip to Tok took longer than I had planned. We stopped to stretch our legs and get water several times. On my own, I would have driven straight through, but with Athena, we needed to take more breaks. At one point we stopped in a sunny area for a rest. I let Athena do her thing then returned to the car to retrieve my camp chair. As I approached the car, I saw swarms of black bugs around the car. Flies. Dozens of biting flies. Scrapping the chair idea, we jumped back into the car. I pulled out a few of my solar shades. It was hot even with the sun blockers, but opening the window brought in the flies, so we turned on the AC and took a nap.
By the time we made it to Tok it was 9 p.m. I found an open campground and set out to rearrange the car for the night. I planned to relocate items from the rear up to the front seats, clearing the back so we could stretch out. I had the first window shade up when they attacked – masses of mosquitos in squadrons. They came from all sides. I sprayed my clothes and they flew into the car. Forget rearranging. I set the empty honey bucket outside my door, put up the last shade and we jumped back into the car.
I swatted, swore and slapped. Athena fought beside me, her head twisting, jaw snapping. We were in a battle for our blood. Eventually, with significant carnage, the buzzing subsided and we settled down, too tired to care anymore.
I pulled a blanket over me, Athena curled up in the passenger seat and we slept – until I had to go pee.
It was 6 a.m. when my bio alarm woke me – time to head across the border. In my sleepy daze I noticed what appeared to be seven or eight pregnant mosquitos. No. They weren’t pregnant, they were full. Satiated stomachs filled with blood slowed them down. Killing drunk mosquitos is easier, but messier. I spared a few who flew out the door. A scan of my arms showed that Athena took the brunt of the nighttime feast.
After yesterday’s battle with bugs, I was willing to forgo making a pot of coffee. If we left right away, we could make it to Beaver Creek in just over two hours, arriving around 9 a.m. Yukon time.
It took longer. The frost heaves from the Tok cut-off were bad enough, but the miles of potholes on the Alaska Highway beyond Tok resembled driving through a video game. At a reduced speed and with my eyes glued to the road, we dodged, swerved and maneuvered through some of the worst potholes I’ve seen in years. Many of the pits were six to eight inches deep – enough to blow out a tire or mess up an axle. The last few times I had driven the road it was winter – no potholes, no frost heaves and definitely no mosquitos or flies.
The Canada border station is about 20 minutes past the U.S. station. I slowed and waited for the border agent to wave me to the window.
I gave him my passport and a handful of papers.
“The papers for my dog are on the bottom,” I said.
“I don’t need those,” he said, handing the veterinarian papers back.
“Where are you headed?”
“Skagway. I’m part-owner of the newspaper there.”
“Why are you going now if it’s been doing fine without you being there?
Whoa. I didn’t expect that. There was no warning, just a shot across the bow that made me sit up.
“I need to train my partner on new software and finish setting up the business,” I said.
“Wait here.” He shut his window.
After a few moments he opened the window and directed me to park.
I pulled ahead to a staging area. Another border officer wearing a mask and holding a notebook approached me. He explained that his job was to determine whether or not it was necessary for me to transit Canada to get to Skagway.
He had an answer for everything. When I said I needed my car, he said that wasn’t essential. I told him my health and age put me at risk for flying. He asked for a medical note, which I didn’t have. I told him I wanted my dog with me, but of course, I didn’t have anything to prove that bringing her was important. She wasn’t a therapy dog, but she was important to me.
I told him my business partner and I were learning about new software for billing and ads, but he said the software company could train us separately.
He was nice, and actually tried to help me come up with an honest argument that he could accept, but in the end, he said he couldn’t deem my trip essential enough to need to drive through Canada.
“I’m going to have to send you back to Alaska.”
I tried to bring up the long drive.
“Have you seen the road conditions I just traveled?”
“Yes, and it’s like that for the next 200 miles that way,” he said, motioning in the direction that was now off limits to me.
I‘m normally successful at negotiating my way through tough situations, but this was a border officer and I learned 40 years ago to give them their space.
I asked if my dog could pee on their lawn. He said yes.
When Athena was finished, we returned to the car. He handed me my passport and other documents including a Refusal of Entry paper telling me not to take it personally, that he had turned others around that morning. He emphasized that trying to cross again without significant changes in the purpose could be bad. Those were his words,
“It could be bad.”
A little research revealed it could be nearly $750,000 or the permanent denial of entry into Canada.
I didn’t want to jeopardize my ability to enter Canada again. I was out of honest answers, so I drove around the grassy area and headed back to Alaska and the 400 plus miles we had just traveled.
I texted Melinda. The next place I could call from would be Tok. I’m sure those two hours drove her nuts. We passed the pothole minefields, kept our breaks quick, followed the same pilot cars and pulled into my driveway by 8 p.m. that night.
I looked at my packed car. Melinda and her daughter had planned on helping me carry everything up the stairs to the office in Skagway. Now I had to empty it myself. I grabbed my phone, my dog and left it in the driveway. It still isn’t totally unpacked.
Athena was confused. We had just spent two days in the car and never made it to the cabin.