Point Roberts: A Geographic Anomaly



Today was my first day on my own in Canada. Randy went back to work (it is Monday, after all), and I had the day free (as I’m on vacation 😀). What was on tap for today? Going back to the United States of course!

I’ve always been a big fan of Americana – in particular, things that make America unique and special well off the beaten path. Since coming to Canada five years ago, I’ve wanted to see Point Roberts. Randy would continually ask me, “Why do you want to go there?” I’d reply, “Because it’s there.” Other Canadians I met would give similar reactions to my Point Roberts journey. Hell, somebody I met in Point Roberts asked me, “Why are you here?” Because it’s here.

Canada’s border with the United States in the western part of both countries solidified on June 15, 1846, when the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Oregon. The Treaty of Oregon established the 49th parallel as the border between the United States and Canada. However, reality is always more complicated than it seems on paper.

Hello, Point Roberts

Point Roberts is a small patch of land about 12 km² in size attached to the region known as the Lower Mainland. In essence, the Lower Mainland is Metro Vancouver. Point Roberts is indistinguishable from Canada to the untrained eye looking at a map without borders. However, the reality couldn’t be more different. Point Roberts sits below the 49th parallel and is very much the United States. To access this 12 km² piece of land, everyone must enter each country through complete passport control.

The border’s restrictive effect could not be more pronounced. Just north of Point Roberts is Tsawwassen – a thriving port suburb in the lower mainland. Tsawwassen is a ferry terminal out to many islands, large quantities of housing, restaurants, and amenities of any modern city. Crossing over into Point Roberts, you quickly see the effect of being separated from the lower mainland.

Enter Covid

Canada’s border with the United States is the world’s longest international border. That border has only closed twice in recorded history. First, there was a short closure during the attacks on September 11. Secondly, in 2020, the pandemic prompted a 20-month closure across the entire border. Because of this closure, no one (aside from the essential workforce) from Canada could enter Point Roberts. Also, no one from Point Roberts could enter Canada.

American transportation authorities set up a ferry service between Point Roberts and Bellingham as a stopgap measure. Without the regular flow of Canadians into Point Roberts, the economy began to suffer. It was tough to see the thriving economy of Tsawwassen next to the struggling economy of Point Roberts. Residents couldn’t drive into Canada for supplies or back into the United States to see family, friends, doctor visits – etc. They were very much firewalled from their own country aside from the ferry.

Seeing USMCA in Action (NAFTA 2.0)

I remember during the Trump administration, there was a fair amount of discussion between the US and Canadian governments about dairy. Canadian dairy farmers wanted substantial tariffs against cheaper American products. At the first gas station, they are advertising dairy products to Canadian consumers.

Some Canadians have mailboxes in border towns like Point Roberts (and Blaine, WA) to bring things over the border without the complicated shipping requirements into Canada. For instance, Canadians will order stuff from Amazon US, send it to their US PO Box, and bring it into Canada using the daily declaration limits.

It is also interesting that all gas stations advertised gasoline in dollars per liter to appeal to Canadians. Yet, on the pump itself, the price was in dollars per gallon, likely due to US federal regulations.

Navigating the border

I met two Dutch twentysomethings coming off the coast as I approached the beach. We said hello and had an awkward pause between us as they were in “Canada” and I was in “America.” Yet, we only had two feet between us. If one of us crossed the border, would anybody care? Would a border agent come out and chastise our interaction?

Even the road by the beach acknowledged the border. Following along the shores of Boundary Bay, the road takes a sharp left inland rather than continuing along the coast into Canada. All the houses on the right-hand side of the road don’t have any access to the United States. It felt weird navigating this part of the world with real dichotomies that felt so false. Inside the United States, state borders are a bit ho-hum: “Yay, I walked from California to Nevada!” Crossing into Canada without passport control could quickly land me in trouble, even though I could simply throw a pinecone across the border.

A bit of exploration

While here, I wanted to ensure I saw most of the town. There were a couple of short hikes along the coastal bluffs and plenty of shoreline. Continuing the volcano theme, Mount Baker could be seen from the beach way off in the distance. I was getting hungry midafternoon, but no restaurant was open Monday afternoon in Point Roberts.

Think about that. There is no restaurant in your town serving lunch on a Monday. Getting lunch requires a passport, crossing an international border twice, and paying in foreign currency. The effects of the extended border closure inside of Point Roberts are real. I was surprised to see so many boats beached out on the shoreline. I’m guessing there’s a reason, but it wasn’t clear to me then. Also, don’t eat the clams LOL.

The post office was also a neat stop. The Mitsubishi Delica definitely made me smile as we don’t have many of those in the United States. I was also surprised to see the dedicated slot for Netflix deliveries. Times are changing now. Netflix DVD by mail service ends in September.

Was it worth the day of my trip to see Point Roberts? Absolutely. It was a good reminder of the importance of civics, social studies, and geography and what happens when the global we don’t get things quite right. I’m hopeful that easing the border restrictions brings more Canadians back down into Point Roberts.



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One response to “Point Roberts: A Geographic Anomaly”

  1. Nathan K Avatar
    Nathan K

    Really great post! Thanks for sharing your excursions!

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