Charles Lynch visits his son, Cody, across an international boundary fence in West Kootenai during the border’s COVID closure. Credit: Brandy Osburn

EUREKA — The drive from his home in Grasmere, British Columbia, to Eureka, Montana, normally takes about 20 minutes — maybe a little longer if there’s traffic at the U.S.-Canada border crossing in Roosville. But for more than a year and a half, Charles Lynch has had to measure the trip in hours, thanks to a global pandemic that shuttered the international border and split his family in two. 

Instead of jumping in his car and driving the 15 miles to Eureka, Lynch would have to drive four hours north to Calgary, then take two flights — one from Calgary to Denver and another from Denver to Kalispell — before making the hour-plus drive north to Eureka to see his fiancé, Brandy Osburn, and their 5-year-old son, Colt. Now, as both countries loosen travel restrictions over the border, the family will have a considerably simpler Christmas together. 

Lynch, a Canadian citizen who works as a heavy equipment operator and supervisor for a company that does work for coal mines in British Columbia, was helping pull a truck out of a snowbank in March 2020 when he heard the border was about to close. 

“I jumped in my truck and headed south,” Lynch said. 

He wouldn’t be back home to Grasmere for five months. 

Though there’s an international border between them, Grasmere and Eureka are closely intertwined. Osburn lives in Eureka, and said that before the pandemic people frequently traveled back and forth to get groceries and gas and see friends. To Osburn, it wasn’t a big deal to have a child and be engaged to someone who lived on the other side. That is, until the border closed. 

In March 2020, U.S. and Canadian officials agreed to a “temporary” border closure in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, that closure would end up dragging on for more than a year — much to the frustration of people in Lincoln County

After getting across the border just hours before it was closed, Lynch took a temporary leave from work and stayed in Eureka with Osburn and Colt for five months before he had to head back north. (Due to visa restrictions, Canadians can stay in the U.S. for only six months before having to go home). In the summer of 2020, Lynch returned to Canada and stayed in quarantine for two weeks before returning to work. 

“It was so hard to tell a 4-year-old that he couldn’t hug his father goodbye.”

Brandy Osburn

While the land border was closed to non-essential travel, there was a workaround: People could still fly between the two countries. So after working in Canada for a few months, Lynch took another break, bought a $750 plane ticket and flew from Calgary to Kalispell, by way of Denver, so he could see his family again. The flight kicked off what would become a familiar pattern for the next year: Lynch would spend a few months in the U.S. before going back to work in Canada. After another several months, he would fly south to see Osburn and Colt. Once, Lynch even took a chartered flight direct from Calgary to Kalispell, a 45-minute flight that was much easier than the commercial hop through Denver. 

And when Lynch was in Canada working, he would sometimes drive down to the border to meet Osburn and Colt and visit across the boundary, at a little clearing in the woods near West Kootenai where only an old wire fence guards the international line. But those visits weren’t always easy.

“It was so hard to tell a 4-year-old that he couldn’t hug his father goodbye,” Osburn said. 

“It was brutal,” Lynch said. “He would say, ‘Daddy, I wanna go with you,’ and explaining to a 4-year-old that he couldn’t come with me was tough.”

Charles Lynch visits his son, Cody, across an international boundary fence in West Kootenai during the border’s COVID closure. Credit: Brandy Osburn

Despite the border closure, Lynch never missed a birthday or major holiday with his family. 

Border restrictions began to lift earlier this year. In August, vaccinated Americans were able to start going north, and last month Canadians were able to start coming south. Lynch said there are still some hiccups to crossing the border, specifically with the app Canada uses to track COVID-19 vaccination and testing information, but that it’s easier than two flights and five hours of driving each way. 

A few weeks before Christmas, Lynch and Osburn said they didn’t have any extravagant plans for the holiday — just a quiet day, together as a family. 

Looking back at the last year, Lynch said he wouldn’t have done anything differently. 

“It’s been rough,” he said. “But you do whatever it takes to see family. Family always comes first.”

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.