DULUTH — When Cody Esser finally moved back to near where he grew up in Wisconsin, he was excited to have a significantly shorter drive to his favorite destination: Thunder Bay, Ontario. Esser had been living in Austin, Texas, for the past six years and was excited to meet up with his Canadian friends again.
Unfortunately, the Wisconsin-based travel blogger moved back home Feb. 29, right before the border between the U.S. and Canada closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He didn't make it up before the border shut down.
But he recently managed to share a nonalcoholic beer with a few of his Canadian friends somewhat face-to-face, with the Pigeon River running between them.
"It wasn't as much yelling as I thought it would be, though there was a lot of brush up there, so it wasn't super easy to see each other," Esser said.
Esser traveled up Minnesota Highway 61 until he met Old Highway 61 and found the spot where the former border crossing at the Outlaw Bridge connected the two countries. His three friends from Thunder Bay found where the bridge connected on the Ontario side and they were able to wave at each other and talk.
"I called Border Patrol on both the U.S. and Canada sides to make sure they knew what we were doing and they were OK with it," Esser said. "I didn't want to find myself suddenly surrounded by Border Patrol."
The old border crossing made an ideal meeting location because it's a point on the river accessible by car and where the river is narrow enough to hold a conversation.
The Outlaw Bridge was constructed in 1916 by the Rotary clubs of Port Arthur and Duluth. A highway to connect the countries had been constructed on both sides, but initially no connector existed. Rather than wait for federal approval from both countries, the Rotary clubs raised the funds and built the technically illegal bridge.
"I hadn't heard of it before this trip, but I thought it was a cool spot for us to visit," Esser said. "Since they took the bridge years ago, I wasn't sure what to expect for the road conditions, but they were better than I expected."
Esser said he and his friends might look for another spot along the border where they could try this again. He'd heard there is a spot in Grand Portage State Park that might work, but checked out the hike and decided he'd do some more research.
Esser documented his journey up Old Highway 61 on his travel blog, "Impulsive Traveler Guy." He's been documenting his travel adventures since his first eventful journey to Thunder Bay six years earlier. Esser and a friend passed through the Canadian border without passports.
"At first, we figured, if anything, we can say we made it to the Canadian border and turn around," Esser said. "Then we decided to see if they'll actually let us into Canada. And they did, with just our driver's licenses as photo IDs."
Esser discovered the issue wasn't getting into Canada, but returning to the U.S. without a passport. After exploring Thunder Bay for a few hours, the duo headed back to the border, where they received closer scrutiny.
"They decided to search the whole vehicle and asked if we had any other ID to verify we were who we said we were," Esser said. "So I pulled out a Wisconsin fishing license and a couple other cards. My buddy pulls out his handgun license and now we're talking guns and fishing and shooting. The guard who searched the vehicle comes back, puts the keys on the table and nods, saying we're good to go."
Esser did get a passport shortly after this experience and soon became a frequent traveler over the border. In fact, he claimed the border guard recognized his blog name when he called to ask about his border friend meetup.
"It's to the point where they know me up there now," Esser said.
While Esser enjoyed the meetup with friends across the border, he said he'll be happy when the border reopens.
"But it's a good way to see each other if you're missing a friend on the other side," he said.