The Odd Existence of Point Roberts, Washington

February 17, 2012
Inside the peninsular tip of Canada that's actually America.

Wandering Google Maps can reveal magical geographies. When preparing for a recent first-time trip to Vancouver, I started zooming in and out and around the area to see what the surroundings are like. That was how I first learned of the existence of Point Roberts, Washington.

The town sits about 20 miles directly south of Vancouver, on a little peninsular tip of land, jutting just below the 49th parallel. That's the line, as you probably know, that generally demarcates the separation between Canada and the United States, at least from the middle of Minnesota westward. This borderline cuts between Blaine, Washington, and White Rock, British Columbia, the two counterpoint cities of this west coast end of the U.S.-Canada border. But through the waters of Boundary Bay, the line keeps heading west, true along the 49th and directly through the peninsula at this tip of British Columbia. To the south of the line sits Point Roberts, a 5-square mile fingernail of B.C. that is actually part of the United States.

Known as an exclave, Point Roberts is a bit of an oddity in that it’s not an island and yet it’s completely separated from the rest of the U.S. The only way to travel from Point Roberts to the rest of Washington and the U.S. is by passing through one international border crossing into Canada, driving 25 miles, and passing through another international border crossing into the U.S., which is a daily trek for schoolkids above third grade. Cars – a fair amount, but not a crush – regularly line up at either side of the border crossing at Point Roberts. Another 20 miles past the border at Blaine is Bellingham, Washington, the seat of Whatcom County, which oversees this unincorporated town in a strange bit of almost international bureaucracy.

To deploy a somewhat crude simile, Point Roberts is like the foreskin of America; cutting it off probably would have been more convenient, but keeping it has some benefits.