As Canada closes the border, unanswered questions from Alaskans pile up

Haines is 39 miles south of the Canadian Border. (Photo by Henry Leasia/KHNS)

Canada is closing its land borders to “non-essential travel” to slow the spread of coronavirus. And that’s leaving many Alaskans scrambling for answers.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the decision follows a conversation with President Trump. 

“And we have agreed that both Canada and the United States will temporarily restrict all non-essential travel across the Canada-U.S. border,” he told reporters in Ottawa

It’s not immediately clear when the closure will take effect or how “non-essential” will be defined. And with no state ferries scheduled to sail up from the Lower 48 for a month, Alaskans like Ron Jackson say they need answers. Jackson is currently in Washington state trying to get home to Haines. 

“So I’m trying to figure out if I qualify as essential or not, trying to get home,” Jackson said.

A Canada Border Services Agency spokeswoman said early Wednesday the situation is evolving rapidly and details are being finalized as quickly as possible.

A spokesman for the Alaska Marine Highway System says the ferry system is working with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to figure out what the closure means for future sailings to Bellingham, B.C.

Mike Swasey was on the road in Utah when the news of impending border restrictions broke. He’s trying to get home to Skagway and hopes to cross the northern border as soon as he can.

“’Cause it could happen at any second,” he said from near Salt Lake City. “I’ve been in touch with border guards from both the U.S. and Canadian side. I’ve been in touch with the mayor of Skagway who has been in close contact with a state senator from Alaska — nobody knows.”

But it’s not just travelers that would be immediately affected by border restrictions.

The Southeast Alaska community of Hyder’s only road access runs through the neighboring town of Stewart, British Columbia. 

The two communities are interlinked. Alaskans there buy most of their groceries in Stewart, B.C., which has the area’s only gas station.

“But at the same time all the Canadians who live in Stewart, a lot of them have to go through Hyder to go to work at the mines,” Hyder’s unofficial mayor Wes Loe said Wednesday. 

So far it’s business-as-usual. But he says cutting off the town’s only road access would be a major disruption.

“If they do close the gate, it’s going to be hard for us, see our mail comes in all of our food from Ketchikan and our mail prescriptions and everything has flown in on Mondays and Thursdays,” Loe said. “And this winter has been a real rough winter because we’ve gone up to three weeks without any supplies at all.”

Other Alaskans are putting off travel through Canada. Delta Junction farmer Randy Peterson recently purchased some farm equipment in the Lower 48. But he’s having second thoughts about driving down to get it.

“It’s just depending on what the virus does,” he said. “If it doesn’t ease up, I have no intention of going to get (the equipment) anyway, because it’s not worth it to me. I think this place is as good a place to be as any right now.”

There are five main border crossings between Alaska and Canada: on the Alaska Highway south of Tok; the Top of the World Highway, east of Chicken; and three in the Southeast, at Pleasant Camp, British Columbia, east of Haines; at Fraser, B.C. between Skagway and Whitehorse; and between Hyder and Stewart, B.C.

KUAC reporter Tim Ellis in Fairbanks and KHNS reporter Henry Leasia in Haines contributed to this story.

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Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.