Thousands of Americans returning from a Thanksgiving weekend in British Columbia clogged the border for hours on Sunday. It was a prelude to the costly bottleneck that may accompany the 2010 Olympics.
My snow-covered Subaru reached the crossing at 6:30 p.m. -- after nearly two hours in line -- with me still in long underwear, fleece and post-snowshoeing hat hair. I identified myself as a journalist who had spent two nights at Whistler and handed the agent my American passport. Our conversation included this:
Agent: Do you have anything to declare?
Me: No. I didn't do any shopping.
Agent: I didn't ask that. Did anyone give you anything?
Agent (seeing the Granny Smith apple sitting on the passenger seat): What about that apple?
Me: I bought it at the store to eat on the way.
Agent: That's a $500 fine. It's illegal to bring in fruits or vegetables without filling out a customs form. It's on the sign out there, unless it's covered with snow.
Me: Oh. I didn't know that.
Agent: Is there a sticker on it?
Me: No, I peeled it off after I bought it.
Agent: Let me see the apple. (pause) I'm confiscating it. If there's no sticker it could have come from anywhere.
The interview took just a few minutes but left a bad taste. If every car was questioned like this, no wonder the border delays mounted -- to four hours by early Sunday evening, according to local radio. This kind of hair-splitting about obscure rules, not to mention new passport requirements, will make crossing the border more difficult and certainly turn off casual visitors.
In order to not waste the economic opportunity from the 2010 games, it's critical that Washington and B.C. convince their federal governments to fund better infrastructure at the border and use much clearer standards for screening travelers.