The U.S. airport border security didn’t take kindly to a rubber bear mask in my carry-on bag. I was traveling to Madison, Wisconsin, to present at Canoecopia—North America’s largest paddling show—and happened to be chosen for a random search. They swabbed my computer, opened up my bag and eventually pulled out the mask.
The female guard laughed, which is probably why her overly-controlling male counterpart became poker-faced. His solemnness grew when I tried to explain the odd contents of my bag.
I was planning on wearing it during my performance with singer/song writer Jerry Vandiver. One of his latest songs is “Bear Barrel Polka.” My job was simple enough. I’d wear the bear costume and dance the polka with random people from the audience.
I’ve dressed as a cow before, a loon, blushed uncontrollably while his fiddle player slowly removed my PFD and pulled a Keith Moon by throwing the drum kit out into the audience. Wearing a bear costume and dancing the polka with random strangers would be a run-of-the-mill affair—but not according to border security.
“Step this way, sir,” the absurdly laddish male border-guard ordered. My bag was put through the scanner and then I was questioned about its contents by a third, seemingly higher-ranking, security staff. He gave me a quirky glance, winked and then wished me a good dancing session.
The polka performance was a huge hit. I was able to dance with half-a-dozen partners during Jerry’s performance without passing out from heat exhaustion while wearing a confined, sticky, sweaty rubber mask.
The rest of the show went OK. It was made up of the normal good and bad of being part of one massive outdoor show—a show I once characterized to border security as a “Star Trek convention for canoeist.”
I hung around some great people, even had four fans give me bottles of exceptional bourbon to be used for my YouTube Whiskey Fireside Chat. I got teased endlessly for ordering the fish at the Famous Dave’s Rib House. My computer crashed minutes before one of my presentations and I overcame it by unambiguously asking if anyone in the audience could help. I was quickly offered a computer from legendary Jim Baird—winner of Season 4 Alone on History Channel—and then I used the knowledge and memories stored in my own brain rather than compensating with a screen full of fancy pics and video.
I seriously can’t make up what happened on the way home. Yep. I got searched again. My bag was randomly chosen and security pulled out the rubber bear mask—again. This time, however, I warned the officer of the contents prior. “There’s a bear-dancing polka mask in my carry on,” I said.
The only good thing going for me that day is that I was too exhausted to care what happened next, and that the small airport in Madison is a much less serious a place than Chicago's.
Every available security personnel gathered to check out what was being pulled out of my bag; not because they thought I was a drug dealer, or some kind of idiosyncratic terrorist threat —they just wanted to see what some oddball Canadian would be willing to pack into the U.S. to humour a bunch of good-willing paddlers.