Written by Richard Glueck
This August, I had the great good fortune to once more head over to Canada, for the Quebec Society of Model Railroaders large scale open house. Among the attendees were only three U.S. citizens. “No matter how hard I try to attract Americans”, said my friend Ron Pelletier, “they always tell me the border is a hassle, and they don’t want to go through it.” And you know, that’s too bad, because the people are great, the layout is fun, the food terrific, and the other sites for wives and family are unparalleled in North America.
I had no problem crossing from Maine into Canada. In fact, it’s a trip I try to make at least twice a year; once for Quebec Live Steamers and once for Montreal live steamers. I’ve been thinking about it, and perhaps I can offer others some advice for visiting our colleagues on the “other side of the border” (no matter which way you travel).
Here are some pointers:
- You need a passport or citizenship identity card to cross the border. Since 9/11, this is a sad fact. Get used to it. Consider it an investment rather than an expense.
- Forget language as a barrier. There is always someone to help you translate, and glad to assist you. Loading your GPS with Canadian routing is a good tact, especially in Quebec, where road signs remain almost exclusively in French.
- Prepare a list of your equipment before you arrive at the border. Since you obviously have a computer, I’d suggest you list each locomotive and car, state the identifying road names and numbers, note what it’s worth in replacement dollars. A photograph is a good idea too. Try to make it accessible so customs can see it and perhaps examine it (my inventory of equipment with photos).
- Stop at your home country’s side BEFORE you cross. Allow them to make a note of what you own. U.S. Customs will issue you a certificate of ownership. I keep mine in my vehicle along with my dog’s vaccination papers. Yes, you can bring your pooch so long as it has up to date medical records!
- When you cross the border, be prepared to stop and allow Customs to look at what you are bringing. The first time you cross, you will have to invest the extra minutes, but in the whole scope of things, it’s not that much time. This is where that list you prepared comes in handy. Answer all questions clearly and truthfully. You are a guest in a foreign country, so behave like a guest. Please, no jokes about drugs, terrorism, or weapons. Customs officials do not have much of a sense of humor, and for good reasons.
- If you intended to sell equipment, you will have to pay duty, so get a receipt. If you are buying equipment, pay for half before you cross, say by Paypal or check, in advance. Under $10,000 cash crossing the border, and your good to go.
- Don’t bring firearms, alcohol, or firewood with you. Firewood? Yes, insect pests travel in firewood. A friend of my recently brought his 1/8th scale logging car with him and had to discard the log load in the States before he could cross the border. It was a hassle and unexpected, but now you know. Consider replacing logs with metal or plastic pipes.
- In Canada, the metric system is used for distances and speeds. 50 Kilometers Per Hour is not 50 Miles Per Hour, it’s about 35 MPH! 80 KPH = 50 MPH. Your speedometer should show the equivalents. I also recommend you make all your purchases with credit cards. In this way, you get the best exchange rate on the dollar. This works both ways, depending on monetary fluctuations.
- A quick call to your insurance agent should get you assurance of liability coverage in the country you are traveling to. For gosh sake, watch out for moose in the roads. Canadians, check your health plan before crossing the border.
- You needn’t over pack. Anything you might want to purchase is available in Canada. Canadian Tire Company coupons are not the equivalent of money!
- In my experience, Canada’s camp grounds and rest areas are clean and safe. If you have a camper or tent, there is usually room to set up at the railroad club sites.
Most of this list is probably stuff you already know, but getting it into a single list may be of help to large scale railroaders wishing to visit some great layouts “on the other side”. Border crossing needn’t be a hassle and it shouldn’t keep you from sharing hobby time with new friends. As I pointed out earlier, I cross a couple times yearly. Border officials generally are grateful for your assistance and preparation. It makes their job easier. I’ve had to open my car and trailer, but I’ve never been required to unload a 400 pound steam locomotive. This last time, I offered to pull in an open my trailer, the Canadian officer looked at my documents and waved me through, saying, “Oh yes, I remember you! Have good time with your trains!” Really.
Once on the return, the US inspector read my documents and asked “Can I see it?” I through back the tarp and he was in awe. He said, “Wow! That’s just like the big ones I have to climb over and inspect! Looks just like them! That is so cool!” For me, that’s the purist praise you can get.
At the risk of overlooking friends in New Brunswick eastward, or Manitoba and other provinces to the west, I would like to point out two fantastic train museums no railfans should overlook. The first is Exporail, located outside Montreal, in Delson, Quebec. A single, long day, will be well spent wandering through steam and Diesel locomotives, including the last Fairbanks-Morse Trainmaster in existence. Two days would be better. This museum is largely indoors, air conditioned, and beautifully maintained. Some equipment operates during the summer. Elsewhere in Montreal are the botanical gardens, the zoo, restaurants, and everything else.
In Ottawa, Ontario, the Museum of Science and Technology owns a beautiful collection of large steam locomotives, including the last CNR 6400 class 4-8-4 and one of two surviving CPR Fairbanks-Morse cab unit C-Liner Diesels. Some of the Museum collection is stored in a restoration facility, so arrangements to view it must be made in advance of your visit. Ottawa is the national capital city, and the Parliament building is fully worth another day’s visit, as is the Mounted Police stable.
Quebec City doesn’t have a railroad museum, but the old city dates back to the 1600’s, and feel like Europe. Great shops and restaurants, and the architecture is breathtaking.
If I sound a little over-enthused about visiting Canada, well, maybe I am. I can tell you my steaming and railroading experiences have been only great. The open house events are worth your time, even if you don’t bring equipment. The Quebec layout is 7.25″ ground line. The layouts at MLS include both 7.25″ ground and dual gauge high lines. My wife has plenty to see while I get “my fix” in. As a couple, we have built life-long friendships with the hobbyists in Quebec and Montreal.
My suggestion is, if you live within driving distance, get your ducks in a row (or moose, depending on which direction you are traveling), and take your train across the border.