My first "experience" in Canada was memorable, to say the least. After high school, I did two years of junior college for the sole reason that I couldn't figure out anything else to do, but soon an overpowering urge to "go" somewhere overpowered me, and I decided to hitchhike up to Canada.
This was toward the end of the Sixties, and there were lots of other people on their way to Canada for one reason or another. This alone was a "reason" to make the trip, so I left from my home in Southern California and headed north. I vaguely recall incidents of interest along the way, but the trip really became interesting when my travelling partner and I reached Blaine, Washington — the last stop before crossing the border.
It was just after dark and we were headed for a Denny's restaurant within sight of the Customs building at the border itself. First we sheepishly crept up to the lawn surrounding the building to map out our strategy, which at that time was still in its formative stage. Crap, the place was lit up like Las Vegas, and we didn't see any obvious paths to get around the security, which seemed to consist of stern-faced men wearing silly blazers — my first look at real Canadians. Since no particular plan was hatched by either of us, we decided to go back to Denny's and get some coffee.
Waiting to be served, we overheard some kids at the booth next to ours involved in a spirited discussion about, of all things, sneaking into Canada. I turned around in my seat and asked them if they were, indeed, planning to sneak into Canada, which they were, so I told them that we were too, so we joined them in trying to figure out how to get a group of [now] 6 kids across the border without getting caught. An hour and several cups of coffee later we figured it out — we would walk east along a country road for a mile or so, then cut north, cross the "border" (whatever that amounted to), then walk back west until we came to the highway, where we would split up and hitch into Vancouver, agreeing to meet up at some pre-disclosed location.
By now it was almost midnight, and a low ceiling of cloud cover made it about as dark as it could possibly get. We slowly walked away down the road, confident that no one would be aware of our covert operations at this hour. That all changed when we passed the first house and a dog started to bark. Quickening our pace, we barely passed the first house when up ahead a dog at the next house began to bark also. Walking even faster now we were chagrined to hear another dog in the distance join in. Jeeze! What is this thing with dogs, anyway? Finally reaching a gap between the houses, we turned north and made our way through a dirt field until we entered a grove of trees and then to the border itself — a quarter-mile wide swath of bare land with a fence running down the center, just like in the movies. I wouldn't have been surprised if a German soldier riding a motorcycle with a sidecar suddenly showed up.
We cautiously approached the low fence, wondering if it were electrified. Not seeing any insulators or any obvious signs of that being so, I joined the rest in climbing over the rickety fence and dashing across the remaining "no man's land" before entering another section of forest. Shortly we stumbled onto, of all things, what looked like a golf course. Here is where things got a little dicey.
So we're 6 people in grungy clothes wearing backpacks walking single file across a golf course in the middle of the night. It was late November, it had been raining for days, and now the temperature was just below freezing as every so often one of us would slip on a patch of ice on the grass. In the distance we saw the lights of a small community and decided to head in that direction to find a road that would lead back to the highway. We had to snake around clumps of thick trees bordering the fairways and never did get to just walk straight over to the street lights. Finally getting close enough to make out a road running along some railroad tracks, we were stopped by a small stream that had overflowed its banks and blocked our intended path. Nobody really wanted to backtrack around the waterway, so after staring at it in the gloomy darkness and throwing rocks into the water trying to figure out how deep it was, we came to the decision that we would just walk across quickly, after taking our boots and socks off. Remarkably, this sounded like a good idea at the time.
As we began to gingerly wade across, the water didn't seem to get any more than ankle deep, and I mused that I might have been better off keeping my boots and socks on, because my feet were numb in the cold water. Just about the time the first guy reached the halfway point, he disappeared from view with a loud scream. At first we thought that he was joking around, but he became completely submerged and thrashed around yelling that he couldn't touch the bottom and, worst of all, he couldn't swim. Things were happening fast now, as the current, which was difficult to see in the darkness, was carrying him and his quickly jettisoned pack downstream, with the rest of us running along side as fast as we could while being barefoot. He managed to thrash his way close enough to shore so that one of the guys could grab him, but his pack was never found.
At first we all stood around saying things like "Wow" and "Fuck" and "Jeeze, my feet are freezing", but at some point we helped the poor guy back to where we all dropped our packs to chase him downstream, and pulled out sweaters and extra clothing from each of the packs to dry him off. We all struggled to get our boots back on and went the long way around to the road and railroad tracks, where we found an empty boxcar and climbed inside to regroup.
The drier 5 of us rummaged through our packs to find any extra clothing that we could donate to the wet guy, and soon he was outfitted in a motley ensemble that made him look like a scarecrow, because he was at least 6" taller than any of us. Unfortunately, it ended up that I was the only one with a sleeping bag, so a plan was hatched that we would all lie down next to each other like a can of sardines, and we could put just our feet in my outstretched bag. The downside to this was that my sleeping bag could only accommodate 5 people side by side, so we decided that one person would remain standing, and could run around or do jumping jacks or whatever it took to keep warm, and every half hour he could come back and exchange with someone using the bag. In hindsight, I don't see how we ever pulled it off, but we did.
During my stint as the odd man out I took a walk along the road to familiarize myself with the surroundings. A sign stated that the Interstate was 6 miles west, and that in "town" there was a café that opened at 6am, which was only a few hours away. Returning to the boxcar, I shared my news with the shivering masses, and we all expressed a profound interest in coffee and pancakes. Various thoughts surfaced about just what it was that made getting to Vancouver so paramount in everyone's mind, and the popular choice seemed to be that psychedelic mushrooms were legal in Canada, and they grew wild around the airport.
At some point before sunup we all decided that enough was enough, and began to make the trek over to the café. The plan was to divide up into either three groups of two or two groups of three, and stagger the time that we hit the Interstate so that there wasn't a huge group of people hitchhiking in the same spot. Since almost everyone wanted to stay and have breakfast, I paired up with one guy and we started to walk down the road to reach the highway, after we all planned to meet up in some nightclub in the Gastown section of Vancouver that night. Apparently the drinking age in Canada was 18 or 19 and the "nightclub" featured a bar and restaurant downstairs with rooms to rent upstairs. I actually looked forward to the long walk out to the highway as it might be an opportunity to squish any remaining water out of my boots.
The hitch into Vancouver only took a few hours, and it didn't take long to find the meeting spot, as just about everyone we asked knew where it was. Having the day free before we were supposed to regroup at the nightclub, we took off in different directions to look around the downtown area. As luck would have it there was a very large police presence as some mucky-muck from the government was supposed to visit Vancouver that day, and I drew unapproving stares from dozens of motorcycle cops. I hung around the docks for hours, taking in the sights and seeing my first float plane land in the water and taxi over to almost the precise spot that I was standing at. "I'm really in Canada!" I thought as I imagined all of the exotic places the float plane must have passed over, but that was soon forgotten as I read on the side of the plane that it was part of some harbor tour, and probably never left the city limits.
By late afternoon I grew tired of staring at the sides of buildings and made my way over to the nightclub, where I was finally able to rent a locker to store my pack in — something that I had been wanting to do all day. Luckily I ran into my hitchhiking partner who was sitting at a table with two others from our "group", and we were to be joined by the rest of the party in an hour or so. It was weird seeing so many younger kids getting served alcohol, but there didn't seem to be any anti-social behavior going on. At an adjoining table were a group of slightly older kids, including a few Indians, who apparently had been working in the "bush" for the last several months and had just been paid. One of them had an incredible caribou skin coat that he had made himself, and he traded it to another guy for a huge knife, which he had made himself, and wore openly. If I tried to walk around in the States with a knife like that I'd be in jail in no time. I asked to see the coat and when it was passed over to me the first thing I noticed was how "gamey" it smelled. I imagined what it would be like to wear it for hours on a crowded Greyhound bus, and quickly handed it back.