We pulled in and unceremoniously dumped everything in the nearest tent pitch before walking down to the marina desk and checking in. We were just thinking about going for a beer when I stupidly said something like ‘oh yes, we’re in the USA now’ and the clerk asked ‘have you cleared customs?’ Erm, well, no. We hadn’t. And we’d always been a little nervous about this part of the trip.
If you are a Canadian or US resident you can apply for permits (RABC and i68) which allow you to cross the border remotely without question, simply phoning and notifying customs of your crossing when you are able. If you are from elsewhere, you cannot get these permits, and we had received conflicting advice on what we should do, being told by one Canadian border official that we’d get a $1000 fine each for not crossing at a land border. Not helpful when we were taking a route that crosses continuously for around 300km, and leaves us in the US. The border services at Fort Frances were most helpful, phoning both the US customs in International Falls (just across the bridge) and the Canadian guys at Pigeon River. Their advice was basically go and do it, and go to the US post at Pigeon River when you arrive or, though they didn’t say it directly, keep your heads down and paddle straight back into Canada when you get to Grand Portage. Until I opened my mouth, this is what we thought we might do…
Anyway, this was no longer an option, so we phoned the US border from the marina, who sent someone down to check our paperwork. Or lack of it. Now, this is a sentence you will not hear very often: thank you to the friendly and fantastically helpful guys at the US border for helping us out and making our arrival in the US legal. And so, 30 minutes after our arrival at the marina, a well marked border services car arrived and whisked us off, much to the amusement of the other campers. We sorted our paperwork at the land border, laughing that my fingers were too grubby for the fingerprint machine to recognise them. Lucky for us, but perhaps not those around us, we have completely lost insight into how wild we look or how bad we smell. They then gave us a lift back to our tent before we completely contaminated the place.
So, for any non-North Americans planning on doing a similar trip in the future, here’s what you should do:
- Make sure you have an ESTA (or visa if required for your country). We had one, but might have been screwed without it.
- Walk over the border at International Falls, with or without your gear. You will be issued with an i94, which allows you to cross as many times as you like for 90 days. Not strictly a remote areas pass, but it looks better than having nothing at all and will probably satisfy any US Border Patrol en route. You can then go back to Fort Francis and commence your trip from there or paddle from the US if you prefer.
- When you reach Grand Portage, phone from the marina. US customs will come down and meet you, and the existence of your i94 should be enough to ensure it is a straightforward process.
- Paddle up to Thunder Bay and phone the CBSA from the Marina there. We didn’t test this bit, but it’s what the Fort Francis guys told us to do. Or cross back at the land border and continue your trip from Thunder Bay.
Essentially, it’s all a bit of a grey area and the border guys know it. So smile, keep your fingers crossed, don’t make too many jokes, and maybe have a few thousand dollars in your bank account in case it all goes to shit.