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Over the River

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Gazing back at the Detroit skyline from a memorial garden on Riverside Drive, Windsor, Ontario. (Photo by Andrew Evans, NG)

So I took a cab to Canada.

My fare to travel from the United States into Ontario totaled $10.60. (That was, until I was not so randomly made to pull over for a rather lengthy interrogation and my driver left the meter running. Sigh.) But, the point is . . . Ontario is close—so close that you can take a cab there.

It took me exactly three minutes to cross Ambassador Bridge—three minutes to travel to Ontario. I could have just flown straight to Toronto, would have been quicker and easier, but I was feeling rather nostalgic.

See, I grew up in the small town of Findlay, Ohio—about two hours south of Ambassador Bridge. The first time I ever left the United States—the first time I ever crossed a border into a foreign country—was on Ambassador Bridge. For me, this mile-and-a-half-long suspension bridge marks the starting line for a lifetime of traveling—and I’m guessing I’m not the only one.

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America's busiest commercial border crossing. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

Ambassador Bridge is the busiest commercial land border crossing in North America. That means more trucks carrying stuff to sell drive across this border than any other in the country.  On average, around 5,000 trucks pass over the bridge per day, as well as 3,000 or more passenger cars that cross daily.

I imagine that a lot of Americans and Canadians make their first international voyage on Ambassador Bridge. For nineteen- and twenty-year-old Americans, the bridge offers a loophole for legal drinking in Canada. For some Canadians, the United States offers compelling shopping. Some people even commute between the two countries—for example, a lot of Canadian nurses work in Detroit hospitals and I’ve met plenty of families whose members are scattered across both Michigan and Ontario.

I wanted to come back to this bridge and remember that first sensation of international travel—the excitement of leaving the very familiar and crossing into the utterly unknown—even when the unknown is “just” Canada. And so yesterday I jumped on a plane from Washington, D.C. to Detroit. The flight lasted just over an hour and the skies were so clear that I could pinpoint every bit of the journey from my seat up in the air: the Appalachians, the winding Ohio River, and the flat farmland of northern Ohio. Soon, the spread of yellow-green squares ended and the blue-grey wash of Lake Erie took over.

These are all places I know well. As our plane descended towards DTW, my eyes picked out my personal landmarks: there was Cedar Point with its skeletal roller coasters. There was the town of Sandusky, the far-off haze of Toledo, Ohio and the shoreline smokestacks of Monroe, Michigan. Then there was Detroit, its river and islands and the bridge—the baby blue painted steel stretch of Ambassador Bridge—like a single stitch holding two countries together.

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Ambassador Bridge with Detroit, Michigan to the South and Windsor, Ontario to the North. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

After arriving, I hung around for a while at the base of the bridge, inspecting the United States “border” on the Michigan side. Wow—things have changed since the last time I was there. The technology behind border security now seems almost science fiction: before your car even stops at the border, the officers have pulled up your details on a computer screen, as well as your car registration.

“Ninety percent of what we’re checking for is what’s right. When you know what’s right, then you can spot when something is wrong,” explained Chief Ron Smith of the United States Border Patrol. Together, we watched as a trained narcotics dog thoroughly investigated the contents of a suspicious car.

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"Masa", U.S. narcotics dog, Ambassador Bridge (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

What I learned is that the dogs on the U.S.-Canadian border are all trained for different purposes. Drug dogs sniff for drugs, but “cash dogs” are trained to sniff out certain amounts of cash. For example, if you’re carrying nine grand in your pocket, the dog will pass you by—but if you’re carrying eleven thousand dollars—more than the legally-allotted $10,000 amount—well, that dog will sniff you out. Luckily, I didn’t smell like drugs or money and I left the U.S. without incident.

Canada was a bit of a different story. For the first time in my life, I was detained at a border. I can laugh about it only because I do love some good irony. Interrogation by a gruff Canadian bureaucrat was a minor unpleasantness—that man’s job is to prevent suspicious people from entering his country. (And my job is to write about it!) I was almost grateful for the extra time at the border. I passed the time in an all-glass holding room, playing video games with my Canadian cab driver on our iPhones. He told me my detainment was a first for him too, even though he crosses Ambassador Bridge sometimes three or four times in a day.

“Doesn’t your passport get filled up quickly?” I wondered out loud. No, it does not, he explained, thanks to Nexus, a wallet-sized card that serves as a digital passport for frequent border-crossers.

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Border security, Ambassador Bridge (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

Yes, things have changed. The first time I crossed Ambassador Bridge and entered Ontario, I did not have a passport, nor did I have a driver’s license, let alone a digital pass card. I was just a kid whose parents drove him across a bridge and into a new country. The only scary part I can remember is driving through Detroit in the 1980s. Today, security on the bridge is so much tighter, the invisible threats more ominous and the gadgets (both to harm and protect) are far more sophisticated. This has far more to do with the state of the world than the realities of Canada.

The U.S.-Canada border is lauded for being the longest peaceful shared border between two countries. That hasn’t changed. I went to Detroit looking for the joy and excitement of first travel. Instead, I had another new first—border detainment! Once again, Ambassador Bridge delivered a whole new travel experience. The situation was made clear. This was not some jaunt across the river—I have entered a new country: the city of Windsor in the province of Ontario in the very close (so close you can take a cab) but foreign (foreign enough to get interrogated at the border) yet rather safe and quite calm country of Canada.

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