The Coho’s first seven trips south were well filled with snowbirds.
As the world came to a halt in March 2020, Angela and Don Ritter rushed out of Arizona as fast as their 40ft camper van would have taken them.
Fleeing north to Canada was like walking through a lifeless Zombieland. âThere was no one on I-5,â says Don.
âWhen we drove through Sacramento, the streets were empty,â adds Angela.
The Metchosin couple arrived in Port Angeles just in time to catch the very last crossing of the Coho ferry to Victoria. After that, the Strait of Juan de Fuca might as well have been as wide as the Pacific, with nothing crossing from side to side.
On Monday morning, the Ritters were back at Victoria’s Coho Terminal, on the front line for the Black Ball’s first paid trip in nearly 20 months. It was the day they and hundreds of thousands of other snowbirds awaited, when the US border finally opened to double-vaccinated Canadian tourists arriving by land and sea. âWe got back on the last ferry, and we’re going out on the first,â Angela said.
And damn it, what a festive scene it was, under a blue sky with a single black cloud (which we’ll get to later). Dozens of people watched from the shore a flotilla of small boats guiding the ferry to the port.
Outside the terminal, a lone bagpiper played a potpourri of The Maple Leaf Forever and America the Beautiful. Someone waved a large Canadian flag.
In the crowded parking lot, stunned passengers – some already wearing shorts, their bony white legs anticipating the southern sun – exchanged punches before rushing to their vehicles to prepare to board.
When the Coho docked, the 40-year-old Black Ball employees who had been isolated across the Strait greeted each other like the old friends they were.
This is what we sometimes forget, that for many, these cross-border services were the links that allow personal relationships to flourish. Among Monday’s crowd was Angela Geisler of Victoria, who was eagerly awaiting her boyfriend Steve Mullensky of Port Townsend, Washington.
She had seen it once, briefly, after Canada opened its border to Americans a few months ago, but other than that, the pandemic had separated them.
âIt was really tough,â she said as she waited for him to emerge. âWe FaceTime, FaceTime, FaceTime. “
Likewise, what excited the Ritters most was not the prospect of a warm winter, but the anticipation of reuniting with friends in Yuma, Ariz., Where they wintered – except last year. – since 2009.
âJust the camaraderie is what we miss the most,â says Angela. “We have more friends there than we have here.” Don, who was a log house builder in Nanaimo before the couple moved to Metchosin a few years ago, says he missed jam sessions with other musicians in Yuma.
They are not the only ones to have lived this lifestyle. The question now is how many will pick up where they left off.
In 2014, in Before Times, TD Economics estimated that 500,000 snowbirds spend a lot of time in the United States each year. Will it pick up again, or will suspicious Canadians take a priority approach to international travel?
The Ritters think they’re okay. They park their campervan (and the car it tows) on an acre leased lot that they have for themselves. Their friends are all double (and sometimes triple) vaxxed. âWe can just as easily distance ourselves socially there,â says Don.
Others, apparently, share their confidence: The Coho’s first seven trips south were well reserved for snowbirds.
It was another story coming the other way, however. The 115-vehicle ferry disgorged just 14 cars, a half and a dozen foot passengers on its first trip to Victoria since March 2020.
The low demand is attributed to Ottawa’s requirement that anyone arriving in Canada provide a recent negative COVID PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test result.
The costs and logistical challenges were enough to deter day trippers and those who just want to cross the strait for the weekend.
Reopening the border under these circumstances is like saying it’s okay to go back into the pool, but only if you are swimming with an anvil under your arm.
With border communities across Canada calling the requirement an overkill, Ottawa’s word is that the rules could change soon.
This is the aforementioned black cloud. Already, the PCR requirement played a big part in the decision to disconnect the Clipper ferry from Seattle in October, less than a month after it was taken over.
The Clipper will not return until spring. Ditto for the Sidney-Anacortes ferry.
As we have learned over the past 20 months, we cannot take these connections for granted.