Transiting Canada to Alaska During Coronavirus

Well we are in Canada! It wasn’t simple though. In fact, driving to Alaska through Canada during the pandemic is probably one of the most intense experiences of my life. They didn’t make it easy to get into the country and they aren’t making it easy on us while here, but none the less we are grateful to be able to pass through at all.

Because of restrictions related to Canada’s Quarantine Act there are only four border stations currently admitting Americans driving to Alaska through Canada during the pandemic. We initially sought entry at North Portal which is about two and a half hours from Minot, North Dakota.

The drive was beautiful. Honestly North Dakota is one of the most beautiful states I have ever seen. Fields of wheat and sunflowers flowed out in every direction all the way to the horizon– just stunning, but very remote.

North Dakota Sunflowers in August
North Dakota is painted yellow in August with fields bursting with sunflowers!

Trying to Get into Canada in North Portal

On arriving at the border in North Portal we used the restrooms and filled up on gas at a small convenience store on the U.S. side of the border. One thing we have learned on this trip is that when given the opportunity for gas or a restroom use it. It could be hours before your next chance. It was good to follow our own advice because we had no idea what we were in for.

After waiting in a brief line we pulled up to the entry gate and the woman took our passports and asked some brief questions before directing us to a parking lot where we were instructed to leave the car and the dogs and then go inside a little building.

We would be in the building for almost four hours. They took us into individual interrogation rooms and asked us a million and a half questions about us, out business, our plans for Alaska etc. etc. etc. It went on and on and on. It was totally surreal. I’ve traveled a great deal and never in my life have I been so questioned for any country. And this is Canada?!?! Our BFF. Our neighbor? 2020 and the pandemic has changed everything.

I also witnessed some crazy things while waiting there. One truck driver was denied entry because he had too much American soil on his back right tire. A military family with two small children, two cats and a dog were allowed entry but that was only after their car was inspected for over two hours. The actual inspection took place in an enclosed inspection bay so I didn’t see what they were doing, but I did see the parents struggled to keep the kids happy and the dog occupied. From what I could tell the border patrol was going through every piece of their luggage. I don’t know where the cats were the whole time, but the entire thing seemed really unfair.

After almost four hours of waiting and answer questions they told us they were denying entry because we didn’t have enough documentation. Correction: they told my husband they were denying us entry. I was forbidden from going into the room where Rick was talking to the inspector. They wouldn’t tell us exactly what documentation they would need only that they thought were we going on vacation although we had all the documents from closing on our house and the moving company. They suggested they would like to see letters from our business associates in the state verifying that we would meet with them. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Anyway to say this was incredibly upsetting was an understatement. Considering I had contacted them on multiple occasions to ask what we needed only to be told it was at the discretion at the border patrol when we arrived this was really frustrating. We had a large folder of documents, but clearly they weren’t what they wanted, but how were we to know?

The fact they expect people to drive literally thousands of miles not knowing what documents they need until they arrive is insane. The fact that they think anyone would sell their house and drive thousands of miles crammed in a car with two dogs and all their worldly possessions to sneak into Canada during a pandemic to go on vacation is utterly absurd. There has to be a better way. It almost made me miss the US driver’s license requirements where you have to have so many documents from column A and so many from column B and so many from column C. Almost anyway, but not quite.

Moving on to Coutts

So we opted to keep heading west and gather additonal documents that night and try again in the morning. The U.S. customs official told us to try Coutts just across from Sweet Grass, Montana because it is a larger border station and we shouldn’t have any issues. This was very good advice. I think North Portal is small and there isn’t a supervisor on duty (or at least that is what they told us) so the agents pretty much do what they want.

Anyway getting to Coutts was an adventure. Let me just say when everyone tells you to drive back to Minot before heading west you probably should just drive back to Minot and then head west. We decided instead to follow the GPS to Havre and spend the night there.

The drive was endless and remote with lots of sections that were dirt and gravel. There was almost nowhere to stop for food or restrooms. We encountered a violent thunderstorm with 60mph winds which was beautiful to watch as it came towards us across the prairie, but at the same time incredibly dangerous. The important thing is that we made it. And we gathered the documents by email– ready to try again. In retrospect it was definitely an adventure lol.

The next morning armed with all the additional documents we drove the additional two hours to Coutts and they let us in without any difficulty. They didn’t even need to see any of the additional documentation. The staff there was thorough, but not insane. They asked a few necessary and appropriate questions, but none of the crazy intrusive and unrelated questions that the people at North Portal asked.

Entering Alberta
We finally made it into Canada!

Tips for Getting into Canada During the Pandemic

I guess my advice if you absolutely must drive to Alaska through Canada during the pandemic is:

  • Get more documentation that you need to prove you have an essential reason to transit.
  • Show you are prepared for the requirements of the quarantine.
  • Prepare for a delay.
  • Don’t use North Portal, but go to a major border crossing like Coutts.
  • Try to stay calm.

If you do in fact have a legitimate reason for driving to Alaska through Canada you have every right to do so under the agreement with the U.S., but you do need to prove it. So just be prepared. They will let you through eventually.

I think Canada, like the rest of the world, is struggling to find a new normal and that is reflected in the chaos at the border. They want to protect their people and yet (at least at Coutts) they understand the need for people to get to Alaska for essential purposes. Finding the balance is a struggle for all of us.

If this goes on for much longer though it would probably be a lot easier on all parties involved to try to get some kind of advance transit visa so people can submit their documents ahead of time. Moving is stressful enough, but to drive halfway across the country in a car packed to the gills with no idea what they will need at the border to prove you have a legitimate reason is just too much.

Now that we are through the border and driving to Alaska through Canada during the pandemic there are many stipulations to ensure we don’t inadvertently spread the coronavirus while here. I will touch on the specifics in my next post.

Click here to read the full story of our move to Alaska.

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About Mary

Mary Stephens holds a degree in international affairs from Georgetown University and a Masters in Teaching from the American University. Mary spent almost twenty years homeschooling her four children and is now navigating post homeschool life in Alaska. She offers personal insights, recipes, homeschooling tips and tricks and travel advice on her website Mary also owns Christopher Travel, a luxury travel company specializing in exquisite vacations around the globe.

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