The Canadian boarder opened up just a few short weeks prior to my scheduled departure. Tech 2 was a go, however it wasn’t just a matter of hopping on a plane and showing up. During the days leading up to my flight, I had a checklist of things to accomplish, including to schedule a PCR test (required to fly internationally/enter Canada) and change my ATT phone plan to allow for international calling. I booked my PCR for 48 hours prior to my departure at one of the local pharmacies. I had to download the ArriveCan App to upload the test results and fill out the Visa information. Annoyingly you couldn’t fill this out ahead of time and just upload the results when they came in. It all had to be done at once.
There was also a huge worry that I’d get stuck in Canada if I tested positive while there. If that happened, the Canadian government had a mandate that I wouldn’t be allowed to fly home. I’d be stuck and have to quarantine for something like a minimum of 15 days. I read some online accounts of Americans getting stuck in Canada and having to stay at “quarantine hotels”, that charged extra for fees because they could. I read one first hand account about a man that ended up spending $10,000 for his stay, because he kept testing positive and had to quarantine for almost 30 days. The risk was very real and I felt a huge level of stress and uncertainty. I was building a precarious tower from toothpicks and at any moment it could all come crashing down.
Make no mistake, I had full appreciation that this was an ambitious trip to undertake and there was an extremely high risk of something going wrong. I truly questioned if I was making the right decision to do this class, now, with all the stuff going on both personally and globally. There was no way I was going to cancel, but at the same time, I did have to make peace with the idea that there was a much higher probability of a trip ending event occurring. But what’s an adventure without a little chaos, right? I think having managed expectations in something like this is important. “Either way it would be a good story.”, I told myself.
The plan was to begin Tech 2 training on Monday October 25th. Class would be held on Vancouver Island based at Guy’s house, in Duncan. We’d do a combination of shore and boat diving all around the Island. I’d stay at Guy’s Air BnB, which was a beautiful guest house on his property. Jon and SJ, Kelvin, and I would share the house for the week. Initially there was a strong chance I wouldn’t be able to check in until Sunday, the 24th since there was a Tech 1 class booked before ours, and the guest house was full. In the event that I couldn’t get into the house, I planned to get a hotel in Duncan Friday and Saturday Night, but held off on booking anything until I was sure.
I booked my flight from Orlando to Vancouver for the afternoon on Thursday the 22nd. I scheduled a rental car for pickup at Vancouver International. I chose to fly into Vancouver because I’ve always wanted to see the city even if it was a short visit. Also based on a very quick search of google maps, it looked as if It would be just a short drive across the bridge to Vancouver Island. Make a mental note of that last sentence. My goal was to fly in a few days early to get settled, get groceries, relax, and hopefully get some diving in prior to class. I was very concerned about being cold, not having enough thermal protection, and/or looking like a shit show because I didn’t get squared away ahead of time. I also wanted a few days to pad my travel just in case something happened like a canceled flight or COVID bullshit. I’ve learned from my previous GUE classes that I’d likely be exhausted by the end of the long class day, so I didn’t want to be in a rush showing up frazzled and tired on day 1. Flying in early was an all around good plan.
If I had the time I would have spent a week on Vancouver Island prior to class, but three days would have to do. I reached out to some of the members of GUE-BC(specifically Jason Cook and Liz Tribe) a few weeks prior to my departure to get some logistics, and to see if it was possible to get a shake down dive before class. The good people at GUE-BC were extremely helpful with all my questions. Conveniently GUE-BC was planning a GUE meetup the weekend of my planned arrival and they invited me to attend. I’ve been social media friends with many of the Pacific Northwest area divers for quite a long time and I was pretty excited to finally meet up with some of them. My plans were set and all that was left to do was pack, deal with all the COVID travel restrictions stuff, and hope for the best.
The week prior to my departure was a whirlwind. I constantly checked the news for anything that might be relevant to my trip to Canada regarding COVID. It seemed like things were changing on a daily basis so I was constantly on edge. I took the PCR and just hoped that came back negative. The night before my flight, I packed, weighed, and repacked my bags until I was reasonably sure I had everything I needed. At the last minute, I culled some gear including the XM450 because it took up so much space. According to my friends in GUE-BC, most of the time the locals just use a BZ200 with heat and they assured me I’d be ok without the XM450. I decided to check my gear in two separate duffle bags. I chose the Santi/Halcyon duffle because they were a good size, durable and can be used as a back pack. I figured this would be very helpful when having to navigate through the airport and on shuttles to the rental car place. I also decided to carry on my drysuit and my laptop bag had essentials like a spare change of clothes and all the important documents. Didn’t check my drysuit because I have a long history of bags getting lost when traveling and I figured everything else could be easily borrowed except the drysuit.
Flyday (Thursday October 22, 2021) arrived and still hadn’t received the results of my PCR. I was scheduled to board at around 4pm and I was getting worried. I called the company that did the test and they assured me the results would be in before I was supposed to board my connection in Denver to Vancouver. They seemed nonchalant about it and suggested I fly anyway in the hope that things will be ok, which annoyed me. I didn’t want to be pushing my timeline that close but it was out of my control. This caused me extreme anxiety since there was a possibility I’d not be allowed to board and be stuck in Denver. I’d still get on the plane at risk but it wasn’t a pleasant feeling. Fortunately I got the email that my test results were negative not long after my call inquiring about my results. The universe was working in my favor at least for now.
Larissa dropped me off at the airport with plenty of time before my flight. She kissed me goodbye, wished me good luck and a safe journey. I checked my bags and made sure I had all the paperwork in place to enter Canada. Security was easy since not many people were flying at this time. I felt like I was on a secret mission that I aught not to speak of; for fear of it getting destroyed at it’s own self awareness. I’m normally shy but I was especially aloof, sitting far away from anyone in silence. I sat in the corner of this little bar near my gate and contemplated everything. I had my trusty GUE wet notes still with the original, yet badly deteriorated and barely distinguishable Team Zissou patch on the front. These wetnotes have been with me on almost every dive and in every class and it showed. I turned to page 1 where I had written out the definitions for each letter in the acronym “GUE EDGE”. This was the metaphorical beginning. I flipped through the other pages and thought of the dives, the classes, the people I’ve met, and the places I’ve seen. God what a journey life has been up to this point. I’ve had the privilege to see things very few have seen, do things very few have done, yet there’s more to come. One way or another this was going to be one hell of an adventure I thought. I sat quietly, ordered a light beer, put on my headphones and pressed the noise canceling button. The hustle and bustle of the outside world melted away into silence. I queued up one of my favorite playlists of adventure music (the soundtrack to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”), and a feeling of calmness, clarity, and excitement seemed to wash over me. I felt ready, for the first time in months.
I received the alert on my phone that it was time to board so I grabbed my bags and made my way over to to the gate. I was getting excited. I was also glad to see that the flight was on time and things seemed to be working in my favor again. I had a 50 minute layover in Denver so I was concerned that any delay would cause me to miss my connection. After a few minutes of waiting, I boarded the plane and found my seat. The plane was pretty empty and I had the front row in economy all to myself. I sat down and waited for the rest of the passengers to get situated, hoping nobody else sat next to me. Once all the passengers settled in, the flight attendants did the routine safety thing. I checked the United app and saw that my bags were loaded onto the plane, another one for the “win” column I thought. However this feeling was short lived. The planes PA speaker crackled with the Captains voice letting us all know there would be a small delay as they “fixed” something on the plane. My odds of making it suddenly shifted to the left and I felt anxious again.
Tens of minutes went by with no word from the Captain. I impatiently looked at my watch, doing the mental math, guestimating how long it would take to get to my gate after we landed. I was just hoping the gates were right beside each other or at the very least very close when we landed in Denver. A half an hour passed by now, and still no word. I was getting really anxious, then the PA speaker crackled again. The Captain announced that would be pushing off the gate in about 10 minutes. I was relieved but this left me with only 10 minutes to get to my flight even if everything went well from here on out. “Cutting it super close” I thought.
Finally after waiting for what seemed like forever, we pushed away from the gate and began the journey. Within minutes we were safely in the air and my adventure had officially begun. I settled into the seat, half dozing off while trying not to think of the mad rush I’d be faced with once I landed in Denver. To be honest I half expected to not even make it this far, but here I was. For the first time I actually let my thoughts wonder what time I might get into Vancouver and about getting the rental car. It was going to be a very long day with the time change and driving to Vancouver Island but I figured I’d get there around midnight. I actually hadn’t even booked a hotel on Vancouver Island yet because I didn’t have any faith of actually making it. I figured I’d wing it or worst case, just sleep in the car. But since things seemed to be working, I decided to go ahead and book the hotel now that I had small chance of making it; plus I had 4 hours to kill just sitting there. I was on the plane’s wi-fi so I pulled up google maps and typed in the address to Duncan from Vancouver to get an estimated time of arrival. I was shocked to see Google maps showed it would take over 4 hours to get to Duncan by Ferry. I realized that I made a critical oversight in my planning. There are no roads to Vancouver island. Only the BC Ferry and I would miss the last sailing tonight by many hours. Well shit. I was supposed to dive in the morning with the GUE-BC crew.
Undeterred, I texted Larissa explaining my mistake and that I would try to get a hotel in Vancouver. I also texted Jason and Liz and sheepishly explained that I thought there was a bridge to the island and I needed to reformulate my plan. They both laughed at me but were also supportive and said it’s not the first time someone made that mistake. I also texted Guy and he simply said “you should have flown into Victoria”. ” A little late for that LOL” I replied. The dive plan for the morning was to meet up at a place called “China Creek” which is geographically north and central from Duncan on the main Island. I told them I’d do my best to make it, but things weren’t looking good. Further googling and researching ensued and I realized that if I could get on the first sailing out of Horse Shoe Bay (North of Vancouver City) to Nanaimo in the morning I might just make it to China Creek in time to meet up for a dive. I was able to navigate the infinitely confusing BC Ferries website and somehow book a sailing for 6:15am, at least I thought I did. I kept Jason and Liz in the loop on my progress. Both warned me about getting to the terminal an hour and a half early to get in line. Next I booked a hotel in downtown Vancouver City. “Crisis averted” I thought as I clicked the screen lock button on my phone and tilted my head back to try to get some rest.
The plane landed in Denver a short time later and we taxied to the gate. I looked at my watch already knowing my connection had started to board; as if by looking at the time it would somehow magically slow it down. It would be close if we can get right to the gate, but we continued to taxi for what seemed like ages. I soon realized that my flight was supposed to take off in just a few minutes. I was absolutely certain that I would miss it. I began googling to see if any more flights were leaving Denver for Vancouver; the next one was a redeye leaving sometime later that evening. I accepted that I’d missed my flight and the red eye would be it. The best case scenario would put me in Vancouver well after midnight, the worst case would be the following day sometime. “Fuck, this sucks, I’m definitely not getting in the water tomorrow”. But at least I padded my trip by a few days so I wasn’t at risk of missing class, yet. I was already tired and hungry but maybe missing my flight would let me rest and get some food. My body was still on East Coast time which was about 10pm at this point. I was facing a 3 or hour layover until I could possibly get on another flight, and I still had another 3+ hour flight from Denver to Vancouver, plus getting through customs, getting the rental car, and driving to the hotel. This was shaping up to be a very long day indeed.
By the time we got to the gate it was well past the time my flight for Vancouver was suppose to leave, for sure I missed it. I started to feel super discouraged at the thought of being so exhausted already and still having so far to go. The Idea of waiting for a redeye just added to that discouragement. It was hard not to be a little pessimistic with everything going on. The universe had other plans. We came to a stop at the gate and I stood up from my seat. I was in no particular rush now, I just wanted to stretch my legs. By this time I already texted Larissa and let her know I missed my flight. I felt my phone buzz and assumed it was her. To my surprise, I got a text from United. “Hey Andrew, don’t worry, we are holding your flight to Vancouver. Please make your way to the gate as quickly as possible.” “Holy shit!” I’m going to make it. They are holding the damn plane for me! I didn’t even have time to text Larissa, I just exited the plane and I quickly made my way to my next gate. I was definitely the last person to board the flight and felt a little embarrassed that everyone was waiting but also extremely grateful. I found my seat and sent Larissa a text that I got on the flight! It was emotional whiplash but another win. Once in the air it was well past 11pm my time and I was starving. The only thing domestic flights serve these days is “snacks” so I got one of those snack boxes for dinner. It was food, barely, but I devoured it none-the-less. The rest of the flight was pretty uneventful. I did manage to close my eyes for an hour or so
I landed in Vancouver at about 10:30pdt which put my body at 1:30 est. I was exhausted, still hungry, but I made it to Canada! I deplaned and made my way through the airport which was a ghost town. Our flight was certainly the last inbound flight of the evening and the only people in sight were the familiar faces from my plane. Vancouver airport is beautiful though. Walking through the airport is like walking through a museum. It was full of exhibits of First Nations art, artifacts, and history.
I meandered my way through the airport and found myself in the line for Customs. I still hadn’t gotten my bags yet but was hoping the line for customs wouldn’t take long. Unfortunately I stood there for over an hour waiting for my turn to present my documents. I had to piss and for some reason something in this airport made me need to sneeze. I tried literally everything I could to hold it in. I’m thinking good god I’m going to get pulled out of line and quarantined if I let this sneeze out. My eyes were watering, I could feel the sneeze coming and It burst out of my mouth with just enough time to cover my face with my sweatshirt in an attempt to muffle the sound. The sneeze rang out loudly and about 20 people turned around in line to glare at me. I could only imagine what they were thinking. “Oh there’s the guy with COVID!”. As I got closer to the front of the line I observed custom agents randomly marking the customs form with a red “X” and I wondered what that was.
Finally it was my turn. I walked up to the counter and received the standard line of questioning from a gentleman that was clearly annoyed and in no mood for anything other than going home for the evening. “Why are you here?” “Where are you staying?” blah blah blah. He asked me if I had felt any symptoms of COVID. “No, I feel good.” I said. He took one look at my watery eyes, partly from whatever was making me need to sneeze and partly due to the fact that I had been awake for almost 22 hours, and promptly marked my form with a big red X. I asked what the X was for and he said “Random COVID test, follow the signs. to the test station”. Yeah random my ass. The gentleman stamped my passport and waved me through the checkpoint. I was basically being detained in the airport until I let them stick a swab up my nose to get a sample and I was not amused.
I walked through the check point and was glad to see my two bags waiting for me on the baggage claim conveyer belt. I found a cart, grabbed my bags, and followed the signs for the COVID testing through a set of double doors. It was like one of those “outbreak” or zombie type movies. Everyone was wearing full Tyveks suits with double masks and Lexan face shields. I had to fill out a bunch of paperwork and they sat me down in this chair in what amounted to a FEMA tent. They stuck this tiny little swab way the fuck up my nose and twirled it around. I wasn’t allowed to move or touch it. Every time the women tried to get the sample it just made my eyes water and I gagged. She kept telling me not to gag and I snapped at her. “If you don’t want me to gag, stop sticking that god damn thing half way into my brain” I was reaching my limit with patience and super annoyed to be honest, but what choice did I have? It was surreal to say the least. They wanted to know where I’d be staying in case the results of the PCR came back positive. I was repeatedly reminded that I would be required by law to quarantine if the results were positive. I informed them I’d quarantine at Guy’s address, but In truth I was already making a contingency plan. The United States had relaxed the COVID restrictions and there was no requirement for testing to enter the country by means of private transportation or walking across the boarder. I decided I could leave the rental car at the airport and pay someone to drive my ass to the boarder or even buy a bike, then walk or ride a bike across to the United States, if it came down to it. From there I’d take train back to Orlando. There was no way I was going to tolerate being detained in Canada for 15-30 days.
Once the Canadian government was reasonably satisfied with the sample of brain matter they took, I was on my way out the door. I would get the results by email in a few days. The rental car facility was located in a parking garage right next to the airport, which is nice because I was definitely not in the mood for anymore bullshit. This customs/COVID testing thing had already delayed me by over and hour and forty five minutes. It was now something like midnight local time which was 3am my time. I was absolutely exhausted and starving. I found my rental car (a Toyota Rav 4) and loaded my bags in. Now I just needed to find the hotel.
Getting out of the airport was pretty easy, and It took a few minutes for my GPS to kick in. While that was calculating, I just followed signs to Vancouver. My hotel was on the north side of the city. I didn’t really have any clue if it was a good or bad area but the hotel had decent ratings and to be honest I’d have slept on a pile of rocks at that point. It was drizzling rain and the city was pretty empty so traffic wasn’t an Issue. There were a few people milling about, coming home from the bars and clubs I assumed. I rolled down the windows to get some fresh air and smell the city. At 1am Vancouver smells like marijuana and I’m reasonably certain the entire city must have been stoned. I followed my GPS to the area of the hotel which took about an hour. It wasn’t the greatest area as evident by most of the business and buildings having bars on the windows. I easily found the hotel but for the life of me couldn’t find where to actually park the car to check in. I circled the block about 5 times until I finally saw a little inconspicuous sign that said “hotel parking”. I checked into the hotel and had to park the car in a parking garage below the hotel. I entered the parking garage, circling the car around and around through multiple gates that only opened by scanning my hotel parking pass. My perception was that this must be a high crime area if this is the level of security needed. I’ve seen less security at US military bases.
I finally parked the car in the bowels of the maximum security parking garage and found the elevator for the hotel. I wasn’t comfortable leaving my bags in the car overnight and I didn’t have a cart to bring them, so I wore one as a backpack on my back, the other as a backpack on the front and hand carried my laptop and drysuit bag. I had about 150 pounds of gear and it wasn’t easy to carry.
The room was ok. Not nice, but not scary, just outdated. It had a little kitchenette and a microwave which did me no good because I’d only be there for a few hours. I still planned to meet the GUE-BC people at China Creek in the morning. I was getting wet one way or another tomorrow, well at that point it was already tomorrow. It was now 1:30 am ptd and I was only seconds from crawling into a bed. I did a quick google map to see how far the Horse Shoe Bay ferry terminal was, (about 30 minutes north east from where I was), set my alarm for 4am and l had a little bit of a smile thinking how the universe was in my favor at least up to this point, as I passed the fuck out.
Flight Ready Packing Tips For Technical Dive Gear:
- Limit the number of checked bags to less than 2 if you can because more than that is hard to manage by yourself while moving through the airport. For my checked bags I chose to use two “santi” drysuit bags since they are a good size and very durable. They also can be worn like a backpack, which I found was very useful.
- Divide the fins between separate bags, put them on the bottom of the bag to protect any of the hard gear like regulators and lights. The fins provide a nice flat base and should help keep you from getting a hole in your bag if someone drags it across a floor.
- Put your computer/bottom timer in your carry-on bag
- Divide regulators between the two bags where possible. Put a few regulators into your carry on if you can.
- Use the undergarments to pack around hard goods and protect them.
- Separate the battery pack from the light head and divide them between the bags.
- I checked the back plate and just picked one of the bags. it was one of the first few items to get packed. Two stage regulators weigh about as much as a steel back plate so if you are trying to keep the bags balanced, it helps to toss the stages in the other bag.
- Leave some space in the bags for clothes as padding. I tend to pack very light with my clothes when I travel anyway so this wasn’t an issue.
- My personal philosophy was to keep my drysuit with me and not check it. From years of traveling and having bags get lost, I wanted the thing that would be difficult to replace on a moments notice to be with me. Fins, regulators, back plates etc could all be borrowed. So I put my drysuit in one of those DUI drysuit bags for my personal item. I also had a regulator or two in this bag to help save some weight in the checked bags.
- Weigh both bags prior to leaving the house, I was right on the money with both being just under the weight limit and only a few oz different between them.