Tips for Traveling to Canada: Border Agents, Booze, & Backcountry Skiing
While I’ve made close to a dozen trips to Canada in my ski career, this is the scene that immediately comes to mind whenever anyone asks me about our neighbors to the north:
It’s been snowing for days. Not flurries, either. Fat flakes. Flakes the size of Wheaties have been coming down, seemingly endlessly, day and night. Save for a few branches poking out, the evergreens are so caked they look more like inverted snow cones than trees. The skiing has been so good that run discussion is moot. Each chairlift ride we enthusiastically recap the intricacies of our runs like it’s our first powder run of the year: a set of three pillows here, a tree tap there, and soft, forgiving powder everywhere in between. And just as we’ve exhausted our powder-skiing vernacular, we arrive at the top to do it all again.
Sure, there are certain lines that stand out and a few misadventures I still can’t seem to shake from memory, but these thoughts are deep in the recesses of my mind, somewhere next to high-school chemistry and a curve-ball grip. Overall, when I think of Canada, it’s these moments of raw, unfiltered stoke fueled by the sensation that you’re getting it as good as anyone’s ever gotten it–and it seems to happen every time I cross the 49th parallel.
From seemingly endless pillow lines to Alaska-esque ramps, there’s a reason Canada is featured each fall in nearly every major ski movie. The Great White North’s mountains have topographic relief usually reserved for the Alps, with the convenience for us Yanks of, well, being in Canada. However, don’t grab for your passport just yet. Like any dream trip, there’s some legwork that needs to happen before that over-the-head powder is realized. Sure, there will be some on-sighting once you get there, but at a minimum consider these issues before heading north:
Buried truck in Revelstoke. Photo Credit: Griffin Post
While every trip can have its exceptions, in general head up earlier in the season for some classic Canadian cold smoke and later on if you’re looking to get on some bigger terrain. Besides weather patterns, the sun’s low angle in December and January helps preserve powder on northerly-facing slopes, which diminishes as the days get longer. (If mountain biking is your game, pay attention to last season’s snow fall. While good for shredders, hard winters might mean that brown-pow doesn’t come out until a little later in the summer.)
Your first ride up the chairlift isn’t the time to realize that you’re after pillow lines, while your partners are into low-angle pow turns. While it may seem obvious, a candid conversation up front can save you from starting off every story about the trip with, “The conditions were awesome, but…”
Sunrise in the Canadian Rockies. Photo Credit: Griffin Post
As tempting as it may be to hit half a dozen spots on the Powder Highway during a ten-day trip, you end up shaving off runs at each location in order to make time for packing, unpacking and driving. Pick a couple of destinations that offer enough terrain to keep you busy, with options of cat and heli-skiing should the conditions line up:
Canada’s benchmark resort, Whistler serves up a lifetime of adventure, with the convenience of being a short drive from Vancouver. While the mountain will undoubtedly keep you entertained, make a point to go beyond the lifts via one of the cat-, heli-, or sled-skiing outfitters. For eats, be sure to check out Sushi Village, serving up world-renowned rolls.
A bit more off the beaten path, Revelstoke has fewer crowds than Whistler and offers the largest lift-serviced continuous drop in North America. Lap the Stoke chair when it’s dumping, and make sure to take a quick hike up Mt. MacKenzie on a clear day. Start and end your day at The Modern Bakeshop & Café, serving up homemade everything. For the night owl, check out The Last Drop.
If couloirs are your game, Kicking Horse is about as good as it gets in terms of lift-serviced couloir shredding. Stay in Golden, about 14km away, for a bit more of a scene, but make sure to stay off the Highway 1 corridor. Lap the Golden Eagle Express for top-to-bottom leg burners, or head over to Stairway to Heaven for pow stashes. Start and end your evening at Golden Taps Pub, for upscale bar food and cold ones.
Thanks to post-9/11 information gathering, agents at the Canadian border–or at the airport when you arrive in Canada–will know every shady detail from your past. While there’s an argument that agents are more lenient on air travelers due to rebooking issues, the requirements are technically the same across the board. From a DUI charge in 2004 to a marijuana possession charge in 1974, Canadian authorities can deem you criminally inadmissible for charges you haven’t thought about in years. Even if you were granted a suspended sentence or another type of deferment, be prepared to address questions from Canadian authorities. For most minor offenses (with a jail sentence of less than ten years) you are eligible to apply for a record suspension after five years and are deemed rehabilitated after ten years. That said, horror stories of people being denied entry for charges they considered ancient history aren’t unheard of, so if you have anything questionable in your past, be prepared:
- Be honest: If you get pulled aside to be interviewed with a customs agent, it’s probably for good reason. It’s not a criminal interrogation: the agent already knows what you did, so there’s no sense in trying to cover it up. In many cases, the agent has the authority to either admit you or not, so points you earn for honesty might help your cause in the long run.
- Be documented: If you were issued a suspended sentence or had a charge expunged from your record, have the court documents to prove it. Information on what may deem you inadmissible, the rehabilitation process, and the documentation you need to cross the border can be found here. If the agent only knows about the charge, there may be little you can do to change his or her mind without any formal documents.
- Be timely: If you’re driving and worried about entry, don’t show up at 9p.m. on Friday night. Doing so leaves you few outs if you need to source some sort of document to prove your eligibility. Plus, just judging from personal experience, agents seem more suspicious the later you’re traveling.
- Be upfront with your traveling companions: Worse than not getting into Canada is making your friends drive an hour in the opposite direction to drop you off at the bus stop in the nearest town. Before you even start the trip, let them know if there could be any problems. Having a customs officer disappointed in you is one things, having your friends disappointed in you is quite another.
- Don’t be a bonehead: While it should go without saying to leave contraband at home, make sure you don’t pack any accidentally, either. Double and triple-check your pockets and usual stashes for any trace of illegal substances. Full searches of your vehicle and luggage are common, and all it takes is a trace amount of marijuana that you may have purchased legally to keep you out for a long time.
In spite of having a reputation for being a beer-loving country, adult beverages tend to be extremely expensive in Canada. If you’re the type of person that likes a cold one (or few) after a day shredding, load up before you cross the border. Each person can bring up to two bottles of wine, one 24-pack of beer, OR one bottle of booze. That is, if you make it across the border.
Actual sign in Revelstoke. Photo Credit: Griffin Post.
Generally speaking, backcountry access around Canadian resorts falls somewhere between US resorts and European resorts in terms of unintentional puckering. That is, the odds of you leaving the resort boundaries and ending up somewhere that you really don’t want to be are pretty good. More than a few tourists have had long, cold nights waiting for search and rescue in the name of a few untracked powder turns. Don’t just follow Joey Double-Ejection’s directions scribbled on a cocktail napkin the night before. Canadians tend to be friendly, so find a local that knows his or her mountain and remember that the beer you brought across the border is the Canadian currency of “Thank you.”