If you’re going to Canada: Do not ride your bike

The United States and Canada once shared one of the friendliest borders in the world. No more, it would seem.

Just ask Alaska adventure cycling legend Jeff Oatley from Fairbanks. One of the friendliest men you are ever likely to meet in the northern wilderness, he took his fat bike on a 1,000-mile ride south on the wild and frozen Yukon River into Canada and almost pedaled himself into a jail cell.

As he reported Monday on his Facebook page, his problems began when he tried to do the right thing upon arrival in Dawson City, Yukon Territory, population 1,300. Dawson is the first human outpost along the wild Yukon south of Eagle, Alaska, population 86.

Between the two communities, there is in winter 150 miles of snow-covered, frozen nothingness. And, of course, the international boundary Oatley crossed without much thought. He didn’t recognize the Canadians might view him as an invader from the northernmost of the United States.

“Apparently entering Canada other than through an official port of entry is a somewhat serious offense,” he reported in his understated way. “At least as it was explained to me for 3.5 hours this morning at the CBSA office”

The CBSA would be the Canadian Borders Services Agency, the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Border Patrol sans the four-wheel drive pickups for chasing illegal Mexican immigrants across the desert. The Alaska-Canada border isn’t patrolled, and there is no fence. But parts of the boundary line are now delineated by a 20-foot-wide clearing through the forest, where there is forest.

And both Canadian and U.S. officials maintain this demarcation should make it clear to everyone they are crossing a closed border. Thirty years ago, officials in the Yukon, population 35,000 (no, that’s not a typo) and Interior Alaska, population maybe 100,000, didn’t give a hoot who went back and forth across this border.

Times, however, have changed. The U.S. Canada border is now considered more of a border than the French-German border, although it wasn’t that long ago that people from the two latter nations were trying to kill each other. You can now drive from Germany into France in a car without stopping. No need for a Panzer.

Do not, however, attempt to drive into Canada from the U.S. without stopping, and if you ride a bike across the unpatrolled part of the border be prepared for big problems as  Oatley discovered the hard way after he managed to find a Canadian authority with whom he could register his entry into that nation’s little populated northern territory.

“Thinking I was doing what I was supposed to be doing,” he reported, “(I) handed the officer my passport and then started getting nervous about her concerned look and curious line of questioning.”

It probably didn’t help when he told her “that the border I crossed is in no way ‘closed’ and offered to show her a photo of the crossing which is marked by six lathe that Earl Rolf put there when he was marking the trail (for the Yukon Quest), but she wasn’t interested in seeing it at all.”

The Yukon Quest is a 1,000-mile sled dog race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, that began Saturday. Oatley, a past winner of the Iditarod Trail Invitational fat bike race along the Iditarod Trail, was taking advantage of the snowmachine trail put in for the Quest dogs to enjoy a different sort of wilderness adventure.

In perfect Alaska style, he failed to ponder the legal implications until too late.

“Eventually she informed me that I had violated a pretty serious Homeland-Security-ish sounding law, by entering Canada through a *closed* area, and that I’d most likely be arrested and shipped to Vancouver (British Columbia) until they could figure out how to deport me,” he said.

Vancouver, a community of about 2.5 million people just north of Seattle, is some 1,200 miles south of Dawson. Needless to say, Oatley got a little worried. But then he got lucky.

After a couple hours of discussion, during which Oatley said some Dawson residents attempted to vouch for him (something for which he is greatly thankful), he wrote that “we got into a conference call with a supervisor in Prince Rupert (British Columbia). He seemed like a pretty sharp chap. Once he was convinced that my story was likely true, or at least mostly true, and that I really did ride my bike there on the Yukon Quest trail, it didn’t take him long to figure out that no drug smugglers or terrorists could possibly be so stupid, and that I might represent a danger to myself, but not really to the general Canadian population.

“So we did some checking of bank records and VISA cards to prove that if I got my own foolish ass in trouble I could probably buy my way out of it and they gave me a 14 day ‘visitor permit’ under the stipulation that I not attempt to work or attend any classes or vocational training.”

Oatley was at last report back on his bike out of Dawson headed for Whitehorse.


22 replies »

  1. Leaving Mass on a bike headed to Anchorage. 86 YO Disabled Korean War Vet with my trailer and best friend JACK ( Jack Russell Terrier) service dog. I am OK with the physical part of this adventure. What about all the BS paperwork and explaining that has to be done
    just to go on a nice bike ride. Mom & dad were both Canadian citizens we traveled quite freely from New England to Montreal. I was born in Mass. served during Korean War as a Seabee. Looks like I will need a much larger trailer just to carry all the paperwork needed for a bike ride. Not sure what Jack needs!!!! I have all his health records ( shots etc.). This trip might have to be set back till next year waiting for all the BS paperwork covering what legal requirements they are throwing at us.
    Vern & Jack

  2. Only an American would think like this after being bombarded with propaganda from his own government’s politicians about building border fences to keep foreigners out. What does he think would happen to a Mexican who did this? That he wouldn’t plan ahead and make arrangements ahead of time is kind of astonishing and self-centered.

  3. Many years ago I hitched a ride on a small fishing boat from Belize into Mexico. The 45-minute boat ride saved me several hours overland. The night before departing the tiny village in Belize, I stopped by the mayor’s house to get my passport stamped “out” of Belize. The next morning, when I arrived in Mexico, I got off the boat, thanked the boat owner, and walked into town. I then simply walked up to the immigration office and presented my passport. That sounds pretty much like what happened here, except that the Canadian officials freaked out over a guy on a bicycle who had come overland. In that area of Alaska and Canada, I surprised there isn’t more informal boarder crossing. Maybe no one else checks in.

    • “no one else checks in” might be a good guess. i truly doubt anyone in the Yukon would have said anything if Jeff Oatley had ridden all the way to Whitehorse without stopping to check in with the authorities at the first community to be found after the border.

  4. Dude, as they say “Your not in Kansas anymore!!”. Why is it that you Americans get all upset when challenged on what you are doing in another country…”I’m an American Citizen!” you like to decry. Who cares! Youi are not the centre of the universe, in fact far from it. Your in a foreign country with different rules and regulations. Abide by them. You have heard about when in Rome right?

    I would challenge a Canadian (or any world citizen) to cross at a border to the USA ( god forbid a brown person) without checking in or without proper permits? Your Homeland Security would have them whisked away faster than you can say Guantanamo!

    Canadians are some of the most hospitable people on the planet, but respect our borders, our laws and we’ll get along just fine.

    • Ah dude? Have you ever been on the Yukon River? Have you ever been to Dawson? This ain’t Kansas or even North Dakota. There’s no border station for more than 100 miles in any direction. So what exactly did Jeff Oatley do after entering Canada? The right and proper thing. He went looking for the first person he could find in authority to say he’d crossed the border and present his papers. Obviously he ran into a “rules-are-rules” bureaucrat who turned this into a bit of a nightmare before they got a more sensible-minded border authority on the phone line from Prince Rupert, a British Columbia port where they are used to people entering Canada randomly on the water. And suddenly there was no real problem. It might be worse for a Canadian coming into the continental U.S., I agree. But I’m not so sure about a Canadian coming into Alaska. I knew a Canadian who used to somewhat regularly fly back and forth from Alaska without ever bothering with customs. No one ever made an issue of it. And I want the old Canada-U.S. relationship back. We’re on the same side despite what U.S.Homeland Security might think. Canada isn’t a staging ground for terrorists. The staging ground for terrorists, if recent events are any indicator, is California.

  5. Craig,

    When I use to fish the border waters of Minnesota and Ontario I had to get a Remote Area Border Crossing pass from the province of Ontario. This allowed me legal passage without going through a checkpoint. Not sure if the RABC is only for Ontario or if it’s Canada wide. It sure makes it easy.

  6. I would agree with the statement that this whole paranoia has been originally setup by the USA, who has multiple times complained of Canada being a passthrough for smugglers and everything bad at their borders.

    I would bet if that crossing would have occurred in the other direction, the poor guy would not have lost 3 hours but rather ended up in jail… My own daughter was in a car and a driver made a wrong turn at Niagara falls (support touristy) and ended up on the bridge crossing to the USA with no way to turn around… She immediately explained that to the nice border woman who accused her of trying to enter USA illegally anyway… So when you have “sick” rules/people handling the borders with no logic and rationality in sight, it’s a problem yes.

    I travel a lot and if my experiences are any indication, the USA border people are really, REALLY taking themselves seriously and as far as I’m concerned, abusive without cause (I understand people who see terrorists at every corner won’t agree with the “without cause” part and we can just agree to disagree.)

    In any case I’ve decided a free years ago that I preferred to bypass the US entirely for travel. I even party extra if needed to have only stops outside of US as I feel always like a criminal even transiting through USA while I feel no such feelings at any other borders (yet). Europe is much less aggressive, and I can vouch for this as being up to date still in 2016 as it just so happens i just experienced going through the USA going from Mexico and then through France to Spain. If I have a choice I’ll choose the European border every time.

  7. This is pure ignorance. Sorry to hear it is coming for Jeff Oatley. Any border to cross require permit and visa.
    We have been arrested for 4 hours in 2007 at the US border on the hwy to Skagway ( a no exit road) while we were crossing from the Yukon to AK backcountry skiing. We detoured to stamp our passport and ID card at the US border. Been told it was a land security offense as we were already in the USA coming from the mountain slopes and not being on the road. Finger prints, face ( 3 sides) pictures, full criminal report and we all 3 have been sent back on the ROAD to the Canadian border. The Canadian border agent had to call he US border to confirm we actually did get back in canada. We had no authorization to get back even with proper document and visa. Last year we tried to circumnavigate around mount Logan in ski touring and had to change our plan at the last minute, spotted by a plane pilot who reported us on the way to cross the US border. Many other stories similar. After September 11, many things have changed and it has started with a strict and drastic reinforcement on the US policy.
    Even crossing any US border on the hwy anywhere require from everyone a passport ( not only a driver license like it used to be before 2011) finger prints, and face picture.
    This has nothing specific to canada, no need to condemn canada for a paranoia set up originally by US and…. I am not Canadian 🙂
    I will be curious to hear if mushers along the YUKON Quest sled dog race need to fill documents to be able to cross the border during the race.
    Hope Jeff will be able to keep enjoying his journey ….we are all looking for a world without border and exaggerated protectionism…. Not sure the US electoral campaign and popular candidates can give us any hope it will get better anytime soon.

  8. And if a neighbour (Canadian or Mexican) crossed into the USA from a “closed” entry point, would the reaction from US border security be any different? Personally I think in North America we should be like the European Union and eliminate borders between us neighbours. Why do so many Americans not understand that Canada is it’s own country?!

    • i’m with you on following the EU model. i don’t know why Americans don’t understand, but the border used to be pretty loosey-goosey. i know at least one dog musher who used to fly back and forth from Alaska to Canada and Canada to Alaska and never worry about checking in with anyone.

  9. We had a crazy situation pre 9-11. Some friends of ours have a cabin about 1 mile south of the border in North Idaho and about 1 mile from the Kingsgate crossing. My hubby went mountain biking, ended up coming back on the road from the other side. He was shirtless, sweat mountain biker with no ID. He had talk his way back in, took some doing and finally the guard was all, “get the hell out of here…”.

  10. Is the World going Mad over Bull oney propaganda ? Where EVERYONE is either a – Drug Smuggler – Terrorist – Mass Murderer or a Rationalist ???

    Sent from my iPhone


  11. I like the part about the 14 day permit where it disallows him from partaking in vocational training. I dunno, I think the Canadians should get their secret service Mounties to follow this guy. I mean, good god, he could stop riding his bike in Carcross and take some welding classes!

  12. Depends on what stretch of the 141st meridian you are crossing. Old Crow, Yukon? Kaktovik people sledding over to Innuvik or Aklavik or Tuktuyuktuk?

    I have a picture of Vuka Stepvoich and Alaska Linck on the Yukon River, crossing the international border up river from Eagle. We checked in with the Eagle customs (after we searched around the village to find him). That was in 1989 when we floated down the Fortmile River to Fortmile and then down the Yukon Rriver to Eagle. We did not need passports in those days.

    Good old days!

    Mike Dalton 322-6733 cell 479-6733 home

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