Your questions about traveling through Canada, answered

The Signpost Forest in Yukon Territory is an iconic stop for drivers headed to Alaska. (Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a lot to keep track of when it comes to COVID-19 and Alaska’s response to the pandemic. Reporters all over the state are talking to experts and local Alaskans every day about the impact the virus is having on our lives. And still, there are lots of unanswered questions. We’re going to tackle your COVID-19 questions weekly. 

RELATED: Restrictions for crossing the border into Canada extended to July 21

We’ve had several questions from listeners about whether they can cross the Canadian border to go to or from Alaska. Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin looked into it and has a few answers.

Liz, Canada has closed its borders to non-essential travel. Is there an exception for Alaskans going home?

Not an exception, but Canada Border Services Agency tells me that, if Alaskans are returning home, they consider that essential travel.

But do they have to carry all their supplies and not stop? I think Sen. Dan Sullivan said that recently.

Right, he said last month that Alaskans driving through Canada can’t use grocery stores, hotels or drive-throughs. I put his statement in a story, and the Canada Border Services Agency contacted me to say that’s not true. They said they want travelers to limit their stops and practice social distancing when they do have to stop. But Canada says it’s encouraging travelers to use drive-throughs, and if they stay in a hotel overnight, they should not leave the hotel.

Sen. Sullivan says his information was based on what his constituents told him about their experiences.

So what about Alaskans who are going the other way – trying to cross from Alaska into Canada, to drive to the Lower 48, or to drive from Haines to another part of Alaska?

That depends on the reason for the trip. Canada says examples of essential trips they’ll allow include travel to a job or to study. So, as I read it, students going to college in the Lower 48 can cross into Canada to drive south. (We’ve had questions about that.) Examples of nonessential travel are sightseeing or social events. 

They make it sound pretty simple. What have you heard from people who’ve made the trip?

I just spoke to a woman who was driving up from California and was turned back at the border in April. She was moving to Alaska. Her husband and child were already in Wasilla, living with his parents. She was bringing the car up with some of their belongings. She had all the paperwork the border agency advised her over the phone to bring, but the border officer said it wasn’t essential for her to transit Canada because she had other ways to get to Alaska. 

What did she do?

She looked into shipping the car up and decided she couldn’t afford it, so she drove back to California and flew to Alaska. Now she’s wondering when Canada will lift the policy so she can get her car.

And, by the way, Canada has extended the policy until June 21, and could extend it again.

I talked to another Alaskan who just made the trip in a campervan. As Alaskans returning home, they had no trouble at the border. But she said there was a checkpoint between British Columbia and Yukon Territory. Yukon is requiring travelers to leave the territory within 24 hours. It’s about 500 miles from Watson Lake to the Alaska border at Beaver Creek, so that would be a long day. But it’d be hard to enforce the rule anyway. There’s no one clocking you out at the other side of the territory.

Did they find campgrounds and roadside services open? 

She said it was a mix. Some campgrounds were closed. Some were open but their bathrooms and showers were closed. She said it seemed like a lot of mom-and-pop businesses may never re-open.

Can Alaskans call the Canada Border Services Agency ahead of time to see if their reason for crossing will be considered essential?

Yes, the agency has a helpline. But the new Alaskan I spoke to said she did call ahead and got assurances. And then, at the border, the  officer told her no one should have made any promises because he has the discretion to decide.

Send us your questions — big and small, serious and trivial — about the pandemic in Alaska and we’ll try to get the answer. Email them to coronavirus@alaskapublic.org or leave a message at 907-586-1600.