A stray tale from the great Alaska adventure that I thought I had posted long ago but actually did not.

My idea of vacation is to load a rental vehicle with camping gear and drive for weeks on end. For all practical purposes I live out of the car for that time. In short order it is full of dirty clothes, camping equipment saturated in various savory odors, half-finished or empty food containers, and anywhere from 50-100 cans of NOS depending on how long it has been since I departed. This is indescribably fun but results in certain negative externalities. One is that any police stop or border crossing becomes a very lengthy process, the latter especially. Think about it. You have a single male traveling alone in a rented vehicle with a disheveled interior and no discernible itinerary. I fit every characteristic (except for whatever variety of unofficial racial profiling is in vogue at the moment) of someone driving around in a vehicle full of drugs. Accordingly when I cross into or out of Canada I budget about 60-90 minutes for it. Even though I know that I have nothing illegal in the car, I understand and recognize why they have reason to think I might. It would do me no good whatsoever to pitch a fit. I just sit in the austere holding area (which always includes a compass…you know, to find Mecca. Because justice is colorblind.) and wait while they rifle through my possessions and check every panel on the vehicle for false compartments. It's just part of the cost of doing business.

In Denali I met an older volunteer park employee – white haired and presumably about 70 – who got to ranting about how difficult it is for him to get across the border when he makes his annual pilgrimage from Texas to Alaska for seasonal volunteer work. Since this happens to me and I hadn't spoken to another human for a few days at the time, I engaged him in conversation. It turns out, as he explained in unwarranted detail, that he is, uh, a firearms enthusiast. The kind who spends every spare dime buying, in many cases from overseas, antique guns. He explained that since he is punctilious in following the rules of "the goddamn ATF" and "the fucking FBI" during these transactions, his fondness for firearms is a matter of record when his passport is scanned at a border crossing. I don't know if you've ever tried to drive into Canada as an American, but they *really* don't want you to bring a gun into the country. Like, they will ask you if you have any guns in the car so many times that you will begin to think it's a joke. So unsurprisingly the many foreign gun purchases that this old guy has made turned his border crossings, like mine, into long ordeals involving thorough vehicle searches.

What I could not figure is why this surprised him or felt justified in getting so angry about it. Is it not bleedingly, even painfully obvious that his history would be cause for reasonable suspicion that he had bought a gun while in another country? He repeated over and over the point that all of his purchases were 100% legal. Well, everything I do on vacation is legal as well. But a pattern of legal actions can sometimes raise eyebrows about illegal ones. It's not illegal to travel alone, to rent a car, to camp, or to cross the border in the goddamn middle of nowhere at 2:15 AM. But when all of those are combined, a border agent who is doing his or her job will look at me and think something might be up. If I were on the other side of the bulletproof glass, I would be suspicious of me too. Yet apparently when the 2nd Amendment is involved, individuals (especially when we factor in Whiteness and Maleness) apparently expect to be above suspicion. It is somehow offensive, bordering on rage-inducing, that border officers might think that a man who owns more than a hundred guns might have guns on him or be buying or selling guns. It seems obvious to me; then again, I am not the kind of person who would be surprised that other people find me suspicious if I chose to own and talk about guns constantly.

44 thoughts on “FIT THE PROFILE”

  • I was detained the third time I crossed into Canada in 1989. I too was traveling alone, in a rented car that wasn't exactly tide, and had no particular itinerary, but it was early on a July afternoon in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, a fairly major crossing point. The immigration officer looked at my passport, looked at me, looked back at my passport, back at me, several times, then asked me how long I was planning to be in Canada. I gave him my planned departure date, which I believe was eight days in the future, and he stamped a visa for NINE DAYS into my passport. Americans crossing into Canada routinely get 90 days without even asking. Then two customs officers, one of whom was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, searched my car and all my bags, all the while being excruciatingly polite.

    All of this was new to me, but it never occurred to me to get mad, because border officials have wide leeway in nearly every country. The only sad thing was that had it degenerated to the rubber glove treatment, it would no doubt have been performed by the ginger man (perfectly cute, but I'm straight) and not his stunning compatriot.

  • Also, I wouldn't be 100% sure that this guy's fondness for guns actually does come up when his passport is scanned. You know how secrecy-driven gun nuts and their enablers in government are, right? I'll admit that I know nothing about this, having never seen the screen that border agents on either side of the US-Canada border see.

    Which reminds me of a funny story. I recently applied for (and was granted) a Nexus card, which enables me to jump the queue when crossing by road or air into Canada or back into the US. I had to go to two interviews, back to back, at the Vancouver airport, one with a US customs official and one with his Canadian counterpart. The Canadian asked me all of the same questions, including my postal code, to which I replied with the five-digit ZIP code of my home address. She seemed confused because her system had my nine-digit ZIP code, so I had to explain to her how ZIP+4, which I believe came about more than 20 years ago, works. And this from a person who interviews US residents all day long. Go figure.

  • The only time I crossed the Canadian border by bus, earlier this year for the USA vs. Germany Women's World Cup semifinal, we all had to go inside, present our papers, and answer one question, roughly "Do you have any firearms?"

    While we were doing this, the border police were searching the bus and its baggage compartment, just to make sure we did not.

    There are more questions — where are you from, where are you going, business or personal, guns, etc. — and fewer searches, at the Champlain border when traveling by car.

  • Leading Edge Boomer says:

    Ed, maybe cleaning out the car would speed up the process? Methinks you were hoping for this reaction so you could write about it.

    I once had a girlfriend who defined camping as staying in a motel with bad TV.

  • Off topic or not, just glad to live under big skies free from borders and where the grass grows green, at least in green houses and part time May to October. Borders. Have crossed a few. Sorry. Apologies for lame prose poem in comment section attempt.

  • Apparently you have forgotten that, being White and Male, society and its protections are exclusively for your benefit. Or, wait–make that "for your benefit."

    Government and law exist to safeguard you from Them. Any other experience you may have with either therefore constitutes a grotesque violation of your rights.

  • My worst Canadian border crossing wasn't the one in which I had the extra questioning or sat in the little room (heading into the U.S. after driving down from Alaska, with all my possessions in my truck, I had no domicile, no address, and wasn't exactly sure where I was going, other than a stopover at my grandparent's.)… no, the worst was when I landed in Ottawa, late at night, on a business trip, to repair a piece of machinery my company had shipped up there, and I had none of the appropriate business-y papers to explain why I was in the country. Well-armed French-accent dude typed into his terminal and harrumphed in my direction for almost an hour before finally giving me a very very very stern warning about papers and let me proceed. They nearly didn't let me leave the airport. And then my hotel was full of hockey players for two nights. Loud young men. In the mornings there would be beer and the occasional bit of blood spilled on the stairs.

  • I've complained about it before here, but I was detained by Canadian immigration for not having a good enough reason to be in Vancouver. Apparently saying I was there to "you know, see the sights" was enough for the screener to send me to immigration officials. I had a guide book and said I hoped the Canucks were playing in town because I wanted to see a game which seemed to make the immigration officer happy. So basically, if you want Canadian immigration people to leave you alone, come during hockey season.

  • Death Panel Truck says:

    I once had a girlfriend who defined camping as staying in a motel with bad TV.

    I think I married that woman.

  • Sort of tangentially related (i.e. to Canada and guns). Here in Canada it is obviously much more difficult to get a firearms license and, I have heard, near impossible for a handgun license. I know a few people who have tried and I would describe none of them as "responsible adults." Not necessarily mass murderers, you understand, but e.g. two-time bankrupts, people in their mid-thirties who haven't held a job for more than six months, people who haven't held any job for two years, people in their early forties who still regularly get so drunk they throw up, etc.

    Is there a Venn diagram somewhere of "(would-be) gun owners" and "irresponsible and/or maladjusted people"? Just curious.

  • Canadian border? What Canadian border? I barely remember slowing down and being waved through. But my car and my conscience are — or were at the time — clean.

  • I'm actually with Andrew on this one. I have several guns, including two which are registered with the federal government as I have them in DC and not in my home state of Utah, and I have had no trouble crossing several borders–not Canada, granted, but a number of European nations (by both plane and train) and Belize. Sure, it would arguably be harder to bring in a gun via plane, but as a fairly large youngish man I would expect to at least be asked a few followup questions if my gun ownership appeared when my passport was scanned, rather than the quick rubber-stamping treatment I usually get. I suspect that the man in Ed's story is delayed not because his passport shows that he is a collector of antique firearms, but because his responses to questions about guns are somewhat less than perfunctory or polite.

  • Hugo asks: 'Is there a Venn diagram somewhere of "(would-be) gun owners" and "irresponsible and/or maladjusted people"? Just curious.'

    I couldn't find any diagrams, but do a Google search for "guns and masculinity" and you'll find plenty of analyses.

  • These border-crossing stories make me sad; the last time I was in Canada was pre-9/11, and the questioning consisted of someone at the border crossing leaning out of the booth and asking "Are you American?" When I replied yes, I was told, "Have a nice day!"

    When I lived in San Diego, I was young and spent most weekends in Mexico. If my friends and I were just going to Tiajuana, we'd park on the American side of the border and walk across. I don't remember doing anything but showing my American-issued driver's license to get across and back. A couple of times we hopped aboard (very small) charter boats to Ensenada and up and down the coast and I don't recall being asked even once–either in Mexico or San Diego–to show proof of citizenship.

    How times have changed.

  • We just recently came back from vacation in Canada.

    We crossed back over up at Port Huron (North of Detroit).

    Middle-aged couple, well dressed, driving an expensive car.

    The US border guard took our passports, stared at his computer for a while, handed them back and said:

    "I have no idea where you guys are coming from but have a nice day"

  • Ed, you have self awareness at a higher level than the older gun collecting gentleman. Congratulations.

    Hey, 'Some guy', how does one single handedly fight the idiot drug war at a border crossing? I want to hear that one…

  • Sock or Muffin? says:

    Growing up really close to Niagara Falls, I've got a few CSBs about my many, many border crossings. For us, NYC was out of the question so Toronto became our 'big city' outing and was where most of the bigger bands played and the drinking age was 3 years lower. All of these are from before the passport requirement.

    Headed up to Montreal once for a bmx contest. Three dirtball kids in a beat up Accord with three bikes strapped to the car. Pulled over to the side for a complete look through of the vehicle. I guess we looked the part of drugged out early 20s kids but none of us ever had so much as the occasional beer.

    Camping up in the 1000 Islands, Canadian side. My dad just had to go back into the US for some money saving reason. I think either his Lucky Strikes, beer or maybe our groceries were orders of magnitude cheaper than in Canada. Dad was honest with the border guard which must have pissed him off as he made us all file into the station so they could copy our driver's licenses.

    Best time though. A friend forgot his license on the way to the first Lollapalooza in Toronto. Guard asks all in car to flash I.D. Friend realizes he's without, shows his Wegmans Shopper's Club card. We are allowed through.

    Those were the days…

  • I will bet a significant amount of money that the white 70-year-old gun enthusiast guy thinks Mooslims in airports should just quit complaining and deal with it.

  • I was delayed for a while with my friend when we returned from an Antibalas concert in Vancouver at 1AM. Our eyes were certainly red from lack of sleep, and neither of us was very shocked by the border guards' suspicion of our activities. But they didn't end up searching, and they were extremely-one might say professionally- polite. Amazing what a difference that makes to one's response to police or state authority interactions.

  • Thirty years ago while crossing into Canada at Niagara Falls I was stopped and searched by US Customs. Probably because my pickup didn't have a front plate so they knew I wasn't a New Yorker. Should have seen them trying to see into a co-workers toolbox that happened to be in the back!

    To top it all off the only reason I was going into Canada was to get something to eat as the Canadian side was nicer than the New York side. I was working there temporarily and made bunch of crossings in the month I was in Niagara Falls.

    The only time I was hassled by Canadian Customs was in Sarnia. I had household stuff in my car as I was going from Michigan to Cape Cod to work. The Canadians were concerned I might sell my cheap microwave somewhere in Canada!! This was in the 90s.

  • I used to drive into Canada a lot — pre-9-11 — and pretty much got the "wave through" treatment.

    My understanding is that a lot of the new rigor was actually imposed on Canada by the Cheney/Bush gang in an order to control us better.

    OTOH — don't try to get into Canada if you have a DUI — less than 10 years old — on your record. It's a no-no, unless you have made arrangements ahead of time. Although admitting you is up to the person you're dealing with, the general rule is that you'll be turned away — even traveling by air.

    Now, if you want to swap border-crossing stories, let me tell you about the time I crossed from Finland into Russia by land right after the breakup of the USSR. We were four and one-half hours at the border. Being bored, I tried to take some photos of the surroundings, but was dissuaded by the muzzle of an AK47 in the hands of what appeared to be a 15-year-old in a comic opera uniform. Then, they take you into this little wooden booth divided in two by a metal partition. You're in one half and the border guard is in the other behind a bullet-proof glass. Your side is all sorts of mirrors at different angles. Then, the guard looks at your passport and then at you. Then does it again, and again, and again — a total of what seemed to be 100 times. Finally, the guard just grunts and waves you on.

  • Well, there's always going to be the "But, I'm Special!" contingent making the rest of us look bad. Being an older white male, I just assume that any sort of snottiness on my part is going to lead to a massive escalation of smackdown on the part of the guys who have the real power there. I learned back as a teenager that you don't poke a sleeping dog if you don't need to, and you don't go looking for trouble because you'll always find it. You can actually get away with a surprising amount of shit if you're polite, or even apologetic, about it, surprisingly enough.

  • In the late '90s, I took a drive along the Canadian side of Lake Ontario with no particular destination except for the Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa, which was (and I think still is) the Canadian headquarters of General Motors.

    I pulled up to the customs booth at Fort Erie and the guard looked at my I.D. and said, "Where are you headed?" I said, "Oshawa."

    This would be like entering the U.S. and saying you were going to, I don't know, Flint, Michigan. The guard said, "Oshawa? Do you have relatives there?"

    I said, "No, I'm just sight-seeing."

    He gave me a look like I'd just started speaking in tongues. "You're going sight-seeing. In Oshawa. I've been doing this job for like 10 years and no one has ever said they're going sight-seeing in Oshawa."

    I shrugged. "There's a car museum there I want to see."

    He handed back my I.D., shaking his head. "Oshawa. You're going sight-seeing in Oshawa. Have a safe trip."

  • That isn't my favorite Canadian customs story, though.

    That happened last year, when my wife and I went to Pelee Island, Ontario, via ferry boat from Sandusky, Ohio.

    We were in line on the dock on a very quiet summer afternoon, and I had all of the windows down and the sunroof open, and on an island in the middle of a lake, sound carries.

    As the customs officers approached, I heard one say to the other, "Who wants to be the good cop this time and who wants to be the bad cop?"

    The other one said, "I was bad cop last time, you be bad cop this time."

    It was all we could do to keep straight faces while we handed them our passports.

  • "He repeated over and over the point that all of his purchases were 100% legal"

    In the United States they are, yeah. Interestingly,Canada is a sovereign nation, with it's own laws and regulations. You don't like that, stay the fuck out.

    " Accordingly when I cross into or out of Canada I budget about 60-90 minutes for it"

    Post 9/11, my Canadian buddy Dino sold his family's vacation home in Point Roberts WA because every time he drove down there, US border guards rifled his car, brought out the explosive sniffing dogs, and took him in the back and "cavity searched" (read "finger fucked) him. Believe me, Canuck border guards are sweethearts by comparison.

  • Over the years, the S.O. and I have had occasion to cross the Canadian border multiple times. My memory is that the Canadian border guards are uniformly polite, friendly, and thoroughly professional. The U.S. guards, on the other hand, tend to be power-tripping asshats.

  • My first trip as an adult through NW Canada. We cleared the border and drove all day. That evening we stopped in a day area/camping area for a break and some supper (by the way Canada has incredible camping facilities).

    I was checking out the engine of the older vehicle we were driving, fluids etc and made the mistake of slamming the hood down. Not more than 5 minutes later, we were surrounded by Mounties, campground workers and concerned citizens. Apparently a moose had been spotted in the campground and the slamming hood alerted everyone to the strong possibility that the redneck Americans were taking pot shots at the moose.

  • @Nan

    I'd say I've mostly been treated politely by both Canadian and US border guards.

    The few occasions where I've run into an asshat, however, were always on the US side.

  • When my wife and I crossed the border at Port Huron, MI enroute to our honeymoon in Toronto at the beginning of September crossing was painless. Passing back into the states took a lot longer. We were expecting to get stamps in our new passport books, but neither crossing guard gave us one. Both guards were polite, but the American one looked a little more annoyed, and a bit like, Dr. Hodgins from Bones.

  • schmitt trigger says:

    Not an US-Canadian border tale, but a US-Mexico one.

    I work in a maquiladora in Mexico but live on the US side. I' must have crossed the border over 6,000 times in 27 years. I could fill a book of border-crossing anecdotes.

    I bring my own food to eat at the company's cafeteria. Many times this includes a fruit, like an apple.
    Well, it is fully forbidden to bring Mexican apples into the US, I know that by heart.

    Imagine my surpreise when a customer officer found an un-eaten apple, with it WASHINGTON STATE APPLE sticker still affixed to it, and I was sent to secondary inspection.
    I queried the officer what was wrong with the 100% American-made apple?
    His answer: Once that it crosses the border, an apple loses its identity.

  • Can't say as I blame the Canadian Border Guards for being on the lookout for ammosexual Americans. They get NEWS there too, and we are looking pretty cray these days.

    But please, dear gun fetishists, do keep it up. You are doing more to jeopardize your gun rights by acting like psycho maniacs than the rest of us could ever achieve. I hope we're getting close to the tipping point with this nonsense.

  • As an Alaskan I have probably gone back and forth into Canada as often or more than most Americans do, since Yukon is the equivalent to "the next state over".

    When I go through Canadian customs I figure whatever they throw at me is fair game. I'm not a citizen of their country and I am on their turf; therefore I have few rights. If they don't want to let me proceed, they don't have to. Likewise, if I don't want to deal with their bullshit, I can turn around and leave. On the other hand, I'd expect a little courtesy re-entering the United States where I do have rights and citizenship.

    Ironically I never have any problems with the Canadians. The cursory review of the passport. The questions: "Do you have any firearms, fruit or vegetables?" Usually a "what is your purpose in Canada" and maybe a few other questions phrased politely enough that I'm not sure if they're relevant or if they just have a boring job and want to make small talk. Maybe they close the window and poke around on the computer a little bit, then give me my passport back and wave me on.

    Coming back into the United States is where I encounter the real assholes on a power trip. Back before passports were required I was accused of forging my birth certificate and informed that "these documents mean nothing to me!". The next time (I had a passport) I was grilled sternly with a bunch of non-relevant questions. I've never been searched but I've always had my documents thrust back into my face and been wordlessly gestured to proceed.

    Seems I'm not the only one who's had this type of experience.

  • Also

    @Andrew I have no idea how ZIP+4 works and I never ever use it unless USPS autogenerates it and fills out the form for me.

  • @Jesse: "Back before passports were required I was accused of forging my birth certificate and informed that 'these documents mean nothing to me!'."

    Sounds like we found our next Democratic presidential nominee. Congrats!

  • @Schmitt; a countryless apple? "The Apple Without a Country"?!?!

    Here's another pre-9/11 story; I was living in England, but went on holiday to Ireland for a week. I brought with me a brand-new camera with the idea of taking pictures and sending them back to my parents in the USA of The Auld Countree, maybe even being lucky enough to meet some extended family. I had been told by several people to declare the camera on the way into the country so as not to risk them thinking I had bought it there and being charged a VAT for it. Therefore, going through customs on the way in, I showed them my camera, and was told by an affable older man, "We don't care what you bring into the country". Ah, more innocent days.

  • It's hard for me to relate to the use passports going back and forth to Canada. It's been decades since I was there. In the old days, going across the Rainbow Bridge involved a little chat to be reasonably sure the car was our own.

  • Having driven through Canada a number of times with firearms, my experience is not that "they *really* don't want you to bring a gun into the country", but that they really dont want certain types of firearms in their country.

    I recognize that the border crossings that I use most frequently, (Haines, AK and Beaver Creek, YT), are not the busiest, and that hunting is as much a part of the culture in the Yukon as Alaska, but my experience is that Canada just has a much more sensible definition of what a hunting rifle or shotgun is.

    I don't know for sure, but I doubt that a 9MM handgun or AR-15 is allowed, but then, those are built primarily for killing people.

    The only issue I ever had with a gun getting into Canada was when I was attempting to take a .22 rifle that had a short barrel (it is made for backpacking) and the Canadian customs agent didn't understand the rules herself. I spent an hour or so at the border until she could get a hold of someone who can answer such questions, and I was allowed into Canada.

  • We recently crossed into Canada in a small plane that landed at the Vancouver airport. Our charter operator had faxed our passports to the Canadians so when we landed, our pilot just gave Canadian immigration a call on his cell phone and then taxied to our terminal. That was a seriously easy border crossing.

    On our return trip to our little local airport our pilot called the US immigration guys at the airport, but no one answered the phone. One of the guys at the charter operation said he'd find someone, so he hopped on a bicycle and cycled from building to building until he found a customs agent who gave our passports a perfunctory scan and waved us in.

    Maybe this was a class thing. We were flying a chartered plane, and not everybody can afford that. It was like the time I rented a car without having to show my driver's license. I was staying at fancy Los Angeles hotel frequented by Hollywood stars seeking privacy. The gym was Marilyn Monroe's old bungalow. When I wanted a rental car, they said sure. I dropped by the front and a valet brought the car around and handed me the keys.

  • I'm an American living in Vancouver. After I'd been here about 6 months, my family took a trip down to Seattle. On the way home, Canadian border patrol initially blocked me from reentering because the Canadian Immigration service, though in possession of my application for permanent residency for months, had not yet entered it into their online system or issued me an ID number. I waited inside in the (quite comfortable) secondary inspection area while, presumably, an agent verified my story, along with my Canadian husband and three (worried) Canadian children. Eventually I was given another 6 month stamp in my passport and let through (I'm now on a work visa) but it felt rather clear to us that our 20 minute wait would have been something quite different had I not been a middle-aged white lady with adorable white kids. Like, say, if I'd been wearing a head scarf.

  • "Arar was detained during a layover at John F. Kennedy International Airport in September 2002 on his way home to Canada from a family vacation in Tunis.[6] He was held without charges in solitary confinement in the United States for nearly two weeks, questioned, and denied meaningful access to a lawyer.[6] The US government suspected him of being a member of Al Qaeda and deported him, not to Canada, his current home and the passport on which he was travelling, but to Syria, even though its government is known to use torture.[7] He was detained in Syria for almost a year, during which time he was tortured, according to the findings of a commission of inquiry ordered by the Canadian government, until his release to Canada. The Syrian government later stated that Arar was "completely innocent."[8][9] A Canadian commission publicly cleared Arar of any links to terrorism, and the government of Canada later settled out of court with Arar. He received C$10.5 million and Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to Arar for Canada's role in his "terrible ordeal".[10][11]

    As of December 2011, Arar and his family remained on the US No Fly List.[12] His US lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit, Arar v. Ashcroft, which sought compensatory damages on Arar’s behalf and also a declaration that the actions of the US government were illegal and violated his constitutional, civil, and international human rights. After the lawsuit was dismissed by the Federal District Court, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal on November 2, 2009. The Supreme Court of the United States declined to review the case on June 14, 2010."

  • Perhaps Texas is like Georgia, where it's against to law for police to inquire about a gun permit, even when its an assault rifle slung over the shoulder in the lobby of the Atlanta airport, where 100,000 people pass through daily.

    Silencer on that assault rifle. No worries since their legal too.

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