Last weekend, Canada Border Services Agency gave us one of those quirky and unexpected experiences that make living in the Yukon so wonderful: a surprise afterparty on the way home from Beer Fest in Haines.
By taking just a minute or two longer to process each car than American Customs needed on Friday night on the way down to Haines, they managed to create a kilometre-long, three-hour rolling street party along the highway leading up to the Pleasant Camp crossing.
It was sunny and the truck thermometer said +27°C. Partygoers immediately deployed all the toys they had taken to Haines. Somebody set up some cornhole boards. Frisbees and volleyballs arced through the air. Yukoners lounged shirtless in lawn chairs by the side of the road, their winter skin gradually turning a deeper shade of pink as the queue slowly moved up the hill. The guy in front of us was dipping his ball cap in the icy water of his cooler.
Dogs frolicked and children wandered with rapidly melting ice cream treats. The owners of a black van kept the engine running the whole time to avoid being baked in the hot Alaskan sun.
Longboarders rolled down the long Pleasant Camp hill with their phones, capturing video of the scene for Instagram. Others unloaded their bikes for a spin.
We reconnected with old friends and made new ones.
“Is this a Canadian Woodstock?” asked one wide-eyed tourist from Maine as he rolled along.
The fact that there is no cell coverage at Pleasant Camp brought back memories of Atlin Music Festival. With nothing to check on your phone, you were forced to talk to people and enjoy yourself.
We have to acknowledge that it took some selfless leadership for Border Services to adopt the spirit of Alaska’s oldest craft beer festival and organize the afterparty.
Some people in the line up weren’t in on the joke and said unfriendly things about the Agency’s competence. Had the department been cut off from the internet and not seen the social media frenzy leading up to Southeast Alaska’s premier gathering of beer connoisseurs?
Did the Advanced Threat Analytics Team in Ottawa have a poorly tuned big-data model that somehow thought that “Beer Fest” plus “spectacular weather forecast” equaled “low traffic at border?”
Especially since the same number of people had rolled by going the opposite direction two days earlier. The hundreds of partygoers had all filled out the ArriveCAN app. So the Agency knew precisely how many people were planning to head their way Sunday afternoon.
The Agency also lost an unknown amount of customs revenues. You don’t have to pay duty on beer you drank in the sun while your designated driver slowly crawled the car uphill.
The only drawback was that there weren’t any food trucks or ice cream carts. But this is understandable. The Agency was caught in an insoluble Catch-22. If they told the Haines food trucks about the event, then not everyone would show up at the same time to line up at the border. But if they didn’t tell everyone in advance, there would be no food trucks.
Eventually, for us, the party was over and we rolled up to Canada Customs. This was where we figured out how they managed to cause a three-hour rolling street party when their American colleagues hadn’t been able to cause a line up longer than five vehicles on the way down.
We were asked what we had bought in Haines, which was such a small amount it made me feel guilty we hadn’t been more assiduous shoppers at the Beer Fest merch tent. Did we have more than our limit of booze? No. Perhaps cannabis products? No. We didn’t have more than $10,000 in any currency. Did we have firewood? No, we didn’t. Perhaps any furs? If not furs, then hides? Again, sadly no, although it would be strange to be importing fur into the Yukon.
They even asked that question I’ve never been asked by border guards in other countries, even when crossing into China or the old Soviet Union: what is the relationship between the members of your party? We gave the people behind us some more time to enjoy the party as we explained who was married to whom, which individuals in the backseat were children, boyfriends of children or just friends.
One new friend did not believe the Agency had thrown the party on purpose. Could they simply be an unaccountable federal department that just doesn’t care how much citizen time they waste? This cynic pointed to the routine tailbacks at border crossings across the country’s southern border.
Government spending in Canada is at record levels, so money for more border guards is not the issue.
This is a dispiriting point of view. It brings up that old cliche: the left hand of government is trying to promote tourism while the right hand does its best to discourage crossing the border.
One feels for the rafts of government and tourist industry officials who meet regularly to discuss how to promote tourism in the Yukon. They hold press conferences, announce new programs and spend millions on tourism ads, while deep in their hearts they know some unknown number of Americans decided not to visit because of the border.
I doubt viewing the afterparty made the guy from Maine go on Tiktok and recommend driving to Canada.
When White Pass announced the trains were not crossing the border this summer, I wondered how many more tours they and the cruise ships would offer if the Canadian border was as easy to cross as driving from Sweden to Denmark or even the France-to-Britain ferry.
Of course, if all these questions made us safer it would be worth it. But one has to wonder. Take the questions about the relationships between five Canadian adults with valid passports. How many shipments of illegal guns to Toronto gangs do such questions unearth?
The border guards themselves were brisk and professional. But if the afterparty wasn’t on purpose, their bosses have some questions to answer.
In the meantime, take a frisbee and some snacks next time you cross the border for an event or long weekend. And if you are reading this in Haines or Skagway, you can plan to make some big bucks parking your food truck on the American side of Canada Customs on any long weekend this summer.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.