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Rural Alaska

Border closure leaves Southeast Alaska towns cut off from their Canadian ‘backyard’

Leslie Ross of Haines in front of her home and bed-and-breakfast on Friday, May 1, 2020. (Photo by John Hagen)

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The police barricade was unlike anything Leslie Ross had ever seen.

In mid-April, Ross, 48, and her 13-year-old daughter were driving north on the Alaska Highway through Canada. It was the last stretch of a nearly 3,000-mile journey home to Haines.

But a row of barricades was stretched across the highway at Watson Lake, a few miles from the British Columbia border with the Yukon territory. Cars were funneled to a checkpoint where Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Yukon Conservation officers waited. After taking countless trips into Canada, Ross felt like a foreigner for the first time.

“It was like a movie,” Ross said. “It didn’t feel like we were in North America.”

Haines is 40 miles from the British Columbia border. It’s one of three Southeast Alaska communities, along with Skagway and Hyder, connected by road to the rest of Alaska through Canada. Each place depends on its neighboring Canadian town for access to necessities like food, health care and medicine. And the linked communities share recreation activities and traditions that are carried across borders and generations.

But borders that once seemed like technicalities have suddenly become barriers. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting border closure altered life dramatically for some Alaskans.

In Hyder, residents shop for groceries and get fuel across the border in Stewart, British Columbia.

“Stewart and Hyder are basically one community with two countries," said Wes Loe, Hyder’s volunteer mayor and General Store owner.

And for people in Haines, “we think of the Yukon as our backyard,” Ross said.

To get home to Haines, Ross showed an officer her passport and registered to enter the Yukon, agreeing to drive through within 24 hours. It was that, or hunker down somewhere in the territory for a two-week quarantine in total isolation before finishing the drive, she said.

The U.S.-Canada border closed March 20 to all nonessential traffic. That closure was recently extended until May 21. Yukon has in place its own stringent travel restrictions and quarantine requirements for anyone entering the territory until it is no longer in a state of emergency.

Haines, May 2020. (Photo by John Hagen)

The border closure, which could be extended again, “can be prolonged as necessary for public health reasons," said Mark Stuart, Canada Border Services Agency spokesman.

“Going across the border into Canada is just a part of our daily life,” Haines Mayor Jan Hill said. “It’s changing the way we live.”

It’s disrupted commerce all along the Alaska Highway. No longer can Haines residents hop across the border to recreate or take a shopping trip to Whitehorse, Yukon, the biggest nearby city.

Whitehorse is also where Haines residents regularly go to seek medical, dental and veterinary care or to catch a flight, Hill said. Hill is concerned that Alaskans aren’t able to access the care and services they need across the border.

Americans can enter Canada only for “non-discretionary purposes” and are asked to wear a face mask in public, according to Stuart. Anyone entering Canada must go into a 14-day quarantine and reduce public contact as much as possible while traveling.

Alaskans who are in the Lower 48 can cross into Canada to drive home. Alaskans also can cross the border for immediate medical care or to shop for “essential goods such as medication or goods necessary to preserve the health and safety of an individual or family,” Stuart said.

But the agency is allowing entry on a case-by-case basis, he said.

It’s wise to call border stations ahead of time, according to Hill.

That leaves a lot of questions about how Alaskans are allowed to cross, Hill said.

“Right now we’re feeling fairly isolated,” she said. “We’ve never really had to deal with the border not being open for business-as-usual.”

Haines Mayor Jan Hill on the Port Chilkoot dock on May 2, 2020. (Photo by John Hagen)

Haines is closely connected to its Canadian neighbors. Some Haines residents have cross-border family ties. Others, like Hill — a member of Champagne-Aishihik First Nation of Yukon — have tribal ties in Canada.

“It feels like you’re cut off from your family. A lot of us are cut off from real family members, too," said Blake Rogers, the Tourism Industry Association of Yukon’s executive director. Usually, “the border is like a technicality to some degree."

The Alaska Highway and its connecting roads are an arterial system keeping communities like Haines infused with essential goods — and with people.

“It’s having a heavy impact on tourism this summer. A lot of operators are struggling in this climate — on both sides of the border," Rogers said, speaking of the border closure. "We had originally predicted a record year for tourism.”

Broadway Street in Skagway is full of visitors, many of the from the cruise ship Coral Princess, on Aug. 23, 2015. (Anne Raup / ADN)

In neighboring Skagway, connected to Alaska’s road system via the Yukon, borough manager Brad Ryan said the closure has heightened the sense of isolation.

“Easter weekend we would have expected hundreds if not thousands of Yukoners to be in town, camping, shopping, eating out,” Ryan said. “There’s a pretty massive economic impact.”

But he said tourism as the community has known it isn’t safe for now. “We don’t want an influx of thousands of people until we know how to mitigate it,” he said.

Without tourists coming in, three or four businesses in Hyder won’t open for the season, Mayor Loe said. But Hyder’s residents — about 30 in wintertime — are able to cross the border into Stewart once a week to stock up on groceries.

Loe takes the UPS packages dropped off by plane in Hyder to the border so Stewart residents can pick up their mail without crossing to avoid the mandated 14-day quarantine for leaving and reentering Canada.

“We’re working really well together,” Loe said. “Everything is really smooth.”

The Bar in Stewart, British Columbia, displays the Canadian and American flags on June 30, 2015. Stewart and Hyder, less than two miles apart, both benefit from shared tourism and mining economies, despite the barriers to trade across the international border.(Loren Holmes / ADN)

The Alaska-Canada road system links to the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system at Haines’ port. For the last three years, about 40,000 people crossed the border north into B.C. at the Dalton Cache Port of Entry near Haines each year, according to Steven Auch, Haines’ tourism director. About half that number cross going south into Haines.

“That ferry-road connection is the heartbeat of our tourism flow, other than ships coming in,” Haines resident Leslie Ross said.

It’s something that Ross’ business, The Inn at Haines, depends on. This year, Ross won’t open her bed and breakfast— it’s usually open April through October. The inn is too close-quarters amid the pandemic and most of her business comes from Yukoners visiting Haines or travelers taking a ferry, she said.

“I can’t even wrap my head around how long this goes on,” Ross said. “I’m just hoping to find a way to pay my mortgage all summer — all year really.”

Ferry service — usually daily in summertime — is currently down to two days a week, Haines Mayor Hill said. Reduced ferry service is in part due to funding cutbacks at the state level and because fewer people are traveling during the pandemic. Hill said the number of ferries will increase this summer, but the service won’t be back to normal levels.

Haines, May 2020. (Photo by John Hagen)

Hill, Ross and other Haines residents say that the biggest impact of the border closure is adjusting to the new, more isolated everyday life.

Usually in spring, hundreds of Haines residents would flock across the border for snowmachining and recreation on a nearby mountain pass, Hill said. And Yukoners help their Alaska relatives dipnet for hooligan in the Chilkoot and Chilkat rivers each spring in Haines.

Locals would then trade the fish oil with Yukon residents for goods like moose meat.

“We have a trail that my father actually walked called the grease trail, where they would take hooligan grease up to the Yukon,” Hill said.

This year, instead of meeting for trade, three Haines residents hauled a tote of the fish up to the border station. Canadian border agents then passed it off north to a few Yukoners who drove down to pick it up.

“That’s a trade we have done for generations,” Hill said.

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