Family Travel Unyear, Days 6-7 (Sept 19-20): Crossing the US-Canada DMZ

  • Ethan Gelber
  • 30 September 2016

OK, yes, I said our family travel would avoid cars as much as possible. But this was one of those impossible situations. After days and days of research, we had come to grips with the difficulty of crossing what I’ve taken to calling the DMZ between northern North Dakota and southern Manitoba.

Sunrise over the plains

Sunrise over the plains of the US-Canada DMZ between North Dakota and Manitoba. All rights reserved

At first we had hoped to take Amtrak to Fargo or Grand Forks and then make our way north via other means to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada. But we could find no reasonably priced “other means” to fill the gap.

A taxi for the one-way three-hour trip from Grand Forks to Winnipeg was priced at US$450! A one-way one-day rental was about the same. There was no direct bus, the only choice running many miles and hours east before crossing the border and allowing us to hop something headed back west. (Apparently there once was a direct bus, but delays due to bad weather and border snafus made in an unreliable service. It was discontinued.)

Family travel: Rohan and Kai in the car

Rohan and Kai prepare for a night in the car, one more ably than the other. Ah family travel. All rights reserved

So we started pricing one-day one-way car rentals from cities further and further away — Fargo, Minneapolis, Madison… and finally Chicago. From all that way away, there was a car that we could afford, but only if we crammed the full 13-hour drive into one 24-hour period.

Which is what we did. We had had hopes of stopping off to see friends and maybe share a meal in Portage (Wisconsin) and/or Minneapolis (Minnesota), but the fates were not on our side. So we plowed through the day and into the evening. Through the kind of torrential rain storm that slows traffic to a crawl. And into a very dark night.

Driving in an afternoon torrential rain storm

This afternoon torrential rain storm got much worse. Traffic slowed to blinking hazards and frenzied wipers. All rights reserved

The Applebees stop for dinner became an urgent necessity when Rohan, near tears, pleaded for dinner. And the few hours of chilly sleep in the parking lot of a Walmart somewhere in Minnesota — now I feel like we have truly joined the ranks of American road warriors — made it possible for me to keep going. So did the largely junk food breakfast we had, paid for with a fistful of leftover American change, before crossing the border into Canada.

The one mystified question at very quiet border station: Your rental has Ontario plates? Yes, it did. The Chicago car rental office had one and figured it was time to give it back to the neighbors in the north.

Sunrise in rearview mirror

Purty. All rights reserved

We rolled in to Winnipeg, hit a surprising amount of traffic and dropped off the car with minutes to spare. The taxi to our hotel was a relief — I wasn’t driving! — but the satisfaction at having crossed the DMZ was even more satisfying.

A Word About Our Remaining Time in Canada
Part of our desire to get to Winnipeg was so that we could make our way across the central and western provinces (and Rockies!) of Canada by train. While this been a long-held desire, it is also part of a push, on behalf of the Family Travel Association, to understand and chronicle some of the kid- and family-friendly experiences in this part of the world.

With that in mind, we contacted tourism boards in the locations we planned to visit to ask for advice and assistance. In some cases, we received fantastic support. We will make clear when this was the case, but rest assured that our vision is unblurred and that our opinions remain our own.

Next stop: Staying in Winnipeg for a few days!

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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, ex-AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, family travel, keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is editorial director of the Family Travel Association, a co-founder of OutBounding, and tackles content projects for HomeExchange.com and RW Social, which produces the NY Trav Fest. Previously, Ethan was Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, for which he founded and edited The Travel Word (this now-independent blog); publications manager of the French government tourist office (Atout France) in NYC; and helped manage a Paris-based bicycle tour operator.
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Canada, children, family travel, North America, Northern America, personal experience, USA,

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