Every summer for more than a decade, we've made the crossing into northern Ontario at Fort Frances with a caravan of walleye anglers in separate vehicles, towing one tarp-covered trailer packed with gear and food.
We learn something new every trip. Unfortunately, some of those lessons have come during "secondary referrals,'' or inspections.
According to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), more than a half-million Americans cross into Canada every year at the seven land entry points that border Minnesota, including Fort Frances.
With one notable exception, the same rules that apply in Fort Frances apply at the other crossing points: Pigeon River Bridge north of Grand Portage, Rainy River International Bridge at Baudette and the Manitoba crossings of Sprague, Piney, South Junction and Tolstoi. The distinction is that 18-year-olds can import beer and liquor into Manitoba. At Ontario ports, the minimum age for the same privilege is 19.
When you pull up to the CBSA booth on the Canadian side, the agent will request identification and pepper you with questions. Where are you from? Where do you work? How long are you going to stay in Canada? Where are you staying? Are you packing live bait? How much tobacco and alcohol are you importing?
The agents are professional and normally good-natured, but it's always a little tense and attempts at humor from inside the car wear thin on the officer quickly.
Here are 10 steps to prepare for a trouble-free crossing for a fishing trip:
Avoid the rush
Plan your crossing to avoid peak times. Mornings are best. Worst is between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. A CBSA pilot project now broadcasts estimated wait times over Twitter, and Fort Frances Bridge is one of the chosen venues. The Twitter handle is @CBSA_FFB.
Have your papers ready. Passports are best, but if you are a U.S. citizen, you do not need a valid passport to enter Canada. However, if you don't have a passport, you should carry a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship to go with your driver's license or photo ID.
Traveling with kids
Canada requires children under the age of 18 to have valid identification, such as a birth certificate. Unless both parents are along, the child will need a letter authorizing entry into Canada. The missing parent or parents must state in the letter where the child is heading and who is responsible for the child. The letter must provide contact information for the missing parent or parents and for where the child is staying in Canada. If you are the child's only guardian, you should have documents to show that.
Don't take the bait
It's OK to import earthworms as long as they are packed in artificial bedding. But it's illegal to carry live minnows or leeches into Ontario. The same goes for live fish, smelt, wax worms, crayfish and salamanders. Frozen or salted minnows are allowed.
Beer, liquor and wine
Most anglers know that Ontario allows adults of drinking age to import, free of duty, one of the following three alcoholic beverages: a case of beer, a bottle of liquor or 1.5 litres of wine. If you're bringing in more, declare it and pay the duty and tax. We've found it's cheaper to buy in the U.S. and pay the charges than it is to buy in Canada, where beer is more expensive and your favorite American brand isn't necessarily available. The key is to buy it all at once in the U.S., bring the receipt with you to the border, declare what you have and pack it all together in an easily accessible spot. When you stop to pay the duty and tax (about 5 or 10 minutes), present your sales receipt. The tax and duty rates are reasonable but not uniform. They are based on the type of alcohol being imported, the quantity and the alcohol content of the product. A CBSA agent might inspect your vehicle to confirm.
When to stay home
It's a big surprise to many that you can't get into Canada if you've had a recent alcohol-related driving offense. It doesn't matter if you're a passenger and have no intention of driving. Any criminal conviction, including DWI, can make a person inadmissible. By policy, border agents exercise their discretion on a case-by-case basis and the final decision rests with them. But a DWI in the past five years is a red flag. Since March 2012 under Canada's Tourism Facilitation Action Plan, you can now get a Temporary Resident Permit with the $200 processing fee waived for one visit. You can apply for the permit at the border, but the government recommends you do it in advance at a Canadian visa office. The program is for people who have been convicted of an offense such as driving under the influence of alcohol but who served no jail time and committed no other acts that would prevent them from entering Canada.
Know what you have in your vehicle. You are allowed to bring the following into Canada free of duty and taxes: 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars, 7 ounces of manufactured tobacco and 200 tobacco sticks.
Dogs and cats that are at least three months old need signed and dated certificates from a veterinarian verifying they have been vaccinated against rabies.
Check the CBSA website cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/menu-eng.html before you leave home to stay abreast of border-crossing information. We were among visitors to Canada about 10 years ago who had their potatoes confiscated at the border. The gossip at the resort centered around a U.S.-Canada trade spat, but others have suggested it had to do with a blight on U.S. spuds at the time. You are currently allowed to bring store-bought potatoes.
Bringing fish home
Remember to leave patches of skin on fish that you bring home from Canada for fish identification purposes.
Kevin Ward is a Twin Cities resident and a journalism student at Marquette.