It’s one of the most visited spots in North America. Every year tens of millions of people make their way here and then abruptly leave – usually within a few minutes. That’s because, for most people, this place isn’t a destination. It’s the Canada-US border.
Stretching 6416 km from coast to coast, not including 2475 km with Alaska, the border is more than just customs offices, long line-ups and security cameras. Parts of it feature unique geography shaped by history, nature and the unique relationship between Canada and the United States.
Point Roberts, Washington / Tsawwassen, BC
Starting on the West Coast, where the boundary leaves the Juan de Fuca Strait and touches land for the first time, you’ll find the border between British Columbia and Washington State. And, the first anomaly along the frontier: Point Roberts, Washington.
“The Point” or “Point Bob” is just south of Tsawwassen, BC. It’s part of the mainland United States but isn’t connected to it. The 49th parallel, which marks the border on the western half of the continent, slices through the Tsawwassen Peninsula, leaving Point Roberts dangling from Canada, surrounded by water.
Located just 35 km south of Vancouver, Point Roberts is small – little more than 12 sq. km in size with a population of around 1300. It caters to Canadian visitors while remaining proudly American. Many BC residents have cottages here because real estate is more affordable.
Entering Point Roberts is simple. There is only one legal road crossing from Tsawwassen. You can ride a bike, walk or drive across. Despite the fact that you can’t really go anywhere from here, the border process is the same as anywhere else along the boundary – it is taken very seriously.
In many ways, Point Roberts is the ultimate gated community, but, at the same time, it is typical cottage country. There is very little traffic on the narrow roads that wind through the thick woods and along the water. It’s perfect for cycling and long walks.
At the centre of Point Bob are a couple of gas stations where fuel is sold in litres for US dollars. There is a surprisingly large grocery store that sells cheap milk and cheese, although not everything on the store shelves can go back to Canada – even if most of the food came through Canada to get here.
And that’s the thing about Point Roberts: pretty much everything has to travel from the mainland US through 40 kilometres of Canada to get back into the US. This applies to schoolchildren as well. Once they hit grade four, local kids travel to Blaine, Washington, on the other side of Boundary Bay. That means a 40 minute trip each way plus a total of four border crossings each day.
Monument Park is located in the northwest corner of Point Roberts. This small park is home to a large obelisk – border marker #1. There are no fences between the two countries, but there is a yellow curb to prevent people from driving across. You can stare into Canada but don’t even think about crossing anywhere but at the official crossing.
From this vantage point, you can watch the ferries going to and fro from the busy Tsawwassen ferry terminal. Or, follow a steep trail down to the beach where, if you’re lucky, you might see a pod of orcas swim by.
Northwest Angle, Minnesota
A few thousand kilometres east of the Pacific Ocean you’ll find another quirky spot: Northwest Angle, Minnesota. Surrounded by Lake of the Woods on three sides and Manitoba to the west, this is the only part of the United States (except Alaska) that is north of the 49th parallel, making it the northernmost point of the contiguous US. When the border was being drawn, it was a mistake about the location of the source of the Mississippi River that resulted in today’s curious situation.
Just a few hundred people live here, most in the village of Angle Inlet. “The Angle” is small, just 320 sq. km, including several islands.
Reaching the Northwest Angle by road is only possible from Manitoba. But, despite signs saying that you’re crossing the international border, there are no permanent customs offices here. Interaction with authorities is done remotely from a point several kilometres inside The Angle. A video phone at Jim’s Corner has two red buttons: one to contact Canadian Customs and one for their US counterparts – depending on whether you’re coming or going.
The Angle is geared towards the outdoors – both summer and winter. There is a number of fishing resorts and camps, as well as RV parks and campgrounds. Most amenities are available as well.
Stanstead, Quebec / Derby Line, Vermont
160 km southeast of Montreal, an erratic boundary line slices through the towns of Stanstead, Quebec and Derby Line, Vermont (combined population of about 4000). This is one of the most interesting places along the frontier because the border cuts through homes, apartment buildings, streets and the public library and opera house. The unusual border owes its existence to mistakes made when it was originally surveyed. However, both countries have since agreed that the border is where it is.
Back when the towns were founded, the border didn’t much matter. People went about their business crossing from one country to the other without much thought. Things changed after 9/11 when security was significantly increased. Now there are agents, helicopters, gates, cameras and motion sensors where before, things were wide open.
The Haskell Free Library and Opera House was constructed directly on the boundary in 1904. It was built as a gift from the Haskell family to residents of both communities. It has two street addresses and is a historic site in both counties.
The front door is in the United States but visitors from either side of the border can enter without going through customs. A thin black line marks the boundary in the reading room, where you can sit with one foot in each nation. Most of the books are in Canada but the checkout is in the US. It has been called the only library in the United States without any books. Upstairs is the opera house, where the stage is in Canada and most of the seats are in the US.
Close by is a couple of divided apartment buildings where residents can cook dinner in one country and eat it in the other.
Until a few years ago, there were several small streets that crossed the border without any controls. But, despite opposition by people on both sides of the boundary, remote control gates were installed. These are opened to allow emergency vehicles or snowplows to cross the border.
A few kilometres to the west is Canusa Avenue, a road that parallels the border. It is completely within Canada, but the houses on the south side are in the US – putting neighbours in different countries. If you want to cross the street to borrow a cup of sugar, you first have to walk to the end of the Canusa to the appropriate customs house and then walk back. And when going home, the process is repeated.
As security increases, it is getting more difficult to explore parts of the border. But there still are places where you can see the friendship between the two countries and how these unique areas have become hybrid communities.