Border Tales

Crossing the line sometimes gets you “nowhere”

[by Jill Missal]


Crossing the Alaska-Canada border marks a milestone in what is still an adventurous undertaking. Though both roads that reach it, the Stewart-Cassiar and the Alaska Highway, are mostly paved and information on road conditions is readily available, the mystique of traveling a dozen hours in a day without encountering a significant settlement remains.

Most of the five border crossings feature a large gap between border stations. Firsttime border crossers scramble for passports when they first see the signs indicating “Customs – 1 mile” (or, in the other direction, “Customs – 1 km”). They slow to pass the squat buildings marking customs and immigration for opposing traffic, only to drive for up to 45 more minutes before reaching the appropriate crossing.

The shape of the Alaska-Canada border—a perfectly straight line following the 141-degree longitude line for a thousand miles, abruptly devolving into tangled chaos on its southern end—results from a border dispute between the U.K. and the United States. When Alaska was purchased from Russia, its borders were unclear and poorly surveyed. When the Gold Rush swelled the population of the region and the need to establish a clear boundary became evident, legal actions led to today’s border. The end result left Canadians out of sorts, a feeling that has subsided with time but helps to explain the “no-man’s land” sensation of crossborder driving to or from Alaska.

Many settlements and towns were already established when the border negotiations were complete. Practical northerners all, neither Canadians nor Alaskans saw any sense in moving settlements, so border crossings were established close to or in the the nearest town. The mosttraveled road crossing, the one between Beaver Creek, Yukon, and Northway, Alaska, features a Canadian border station nearly 18 miles from the actual border. The American crossing at the location is a mere few hundred feet from the border, but this distance was much farther before 1971, when the border station was located 90 miles away in Tok.

The Tok border crossing handled traffic for both the Alaska Highway and the Top of the World Highway until the Poker Creek-Little Gold Creek border crossing was established. If one drives the Beaver Creek crossing and is surprised by the “no man’s land,” the Top of the World crossing might be an even bigger surprise, as it is one of the very few jointly-built border crossings between the United States and Canada— one building houses both operations. How the building’s workers keep track of which of them is on Yukon time and which is on Alaska time is anyone’s guess; you will have to change your clocks an hour when you pass by.

If you venture south to Haines, you may find the border crossing there a tad more typical, as the two border stations are less than a mile apart. However, you will have to turn those clocks back an hour. Were it the other way around, ferries would likely be missed more often!

“Golden Triangle” travelers taking the short ferry from Haines to Skagway can use that extra hour to visit the Fraser border crossing near White Pass, above Skagway. It’s this crossing that helpfully features a sign showing exactly where the border lies. There’s another “no man’s land” here, with eight miles of Alaska to cross before entering the United States. The Canadian station is at the Fraser railway station, nearly eight miles from the
border. A short hike to International Falls will entertain adventurous travelers, as the route begins on the Canadian side and crosses into the U.S. (and back, assuming you want to return to your vehicle. This is highly recommended, as entering Alaska without formally crossing the border is
frowned upon).

Finally, for a truly bizarre border experience, Cassiar drivers can take a side trip to Stewart, Alaska, which has no formal border crossing into the United States. Road travelers just zip on in without stopping. This is because the two towns, just a few kilometers apart, essentially operate as one town, both taking either country’s currency. Utilities, fi re protection, and even phone service are imported from Canada; Hyder, Alaska, residents are the only Alaskans to not have the 907 area code, instead using British Columbia’s, and operates on British Columbia time as well.

Be aware, though—your quick dash into Alaska might be longer than you think, as returning to Canada will require going through the entire border rigmarole with Canadian Customs. And if you’re late getting back to Canada, you’ll get another unique border experience when you use the after-hours phone system to clear customs and immigration.

Like most other things in this part of the world, even border crossings have their own unique characteristics. With only five points of entry into Alaska via the road system, the intrepid traveler could certainly visit them all and experience the truly Alaskan experience of our slightly
bizarre borders.


Jill Missal is an Alaskan writer who was raised in the woods of Kodiak Island on the edge of the Pacific.