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A day trip to Point Roberts — Corbett Scholar Justin Wong

Lily Point Marine Park. Looks can be deceiving! It's a big drop down there. Photo credit: Justin Wong

April 5, 2022

Border communities have always fascinated me. It’s absurd yet entirely normal that people lead vastly different lives depending on which side of an arbitrary line they find themselves on. There are dozens of communities straddled along the U.S.-Canada border and I even had the chance to visit one last summer (Cornwall, ON). As a geography lover, I have spent countless hours looking for oddities on Google Maps. Point Roberts has always piqued my interest, although I never had the chance to visit despite living in Vancouver for most of my life.

Last month, Natalie Baloy from Western Washington University spoke to the virtual exchange students and mentioned that the Border Policy Research Institute published a paper on the effects of the border closure on Point Roberts. Upon learning that 90% of Point Roberts’ business comes from Canada and Canadians own 75% of the property, I was curious to see what life was like there.

All quiet in Point Roberts. Photo credit: Justin Wong

At the time of writing, Point Roberts is only one of four border crossings exempted from a mandatory COVID-19 test upon entry to Canada, so I convinced my mom and sister to join me in what would be our first international trip in two years.

Border monument, Point Roberts. Photo credit: Justin Wong

Upon entering the peninsula, we couldn’t help but notice the quiet roads that contrasted from the rush-hour streets of Tsawwassen immediately north. Our first destination was Lily Point Marine Park, situated at the Southeast tip of the peninsula. We walked along a path, which eventually led us towards the water. Expecting a beach, we instead found a cliff that dropped a few hundred feet below.

Back on the main road, we saw roughly a dozen people clearing the cemetery of leaves and tree branches. I got out of the car, hoping to strike up a conversation with a local. I spoke to Renee who informed me that it was their annual cemetery clean-up day, and jokingly asked why I didn’t bring a rake. I asked her about the pandemic, and she explained how difficult life was for residents and how they felt trapped here – only able to leave if faced with a life-or-death situation. Many businesses did not survive, and long-time residents moved away. There were some positive changes, however, including a temporary ferry service running from Point Roberts to Bellingham free of charge, and the recovery of the dear population.

Point Roberts. This could be any old neighborhood. Photo credit: Justin Wong

We planned to grab lunch in Point Roberts hoping to support a local business. However, the only two restaurants in Point Roberts were closed when we arrived. so tried my luck at an adjacent store with an “open” sign. It turned out to be a liquor store, but the owner said that he had canned soup and macaroni in stock to keep it open as an essential business.

We then drove towards the 49th parallel to visit the demarcation monument, which seemed out of place. If it weren’t for the signs, it could easily be mistaken for any rural area in the Pacific Northwest.

Cascade-style chips (not available in B.C.) Photo credit: Justin Wong

Still determined to help a local business, we headed for the supermarket in town and bought some American chips and pop. It was kept afloat thanks to a $100,000 grant from the State government.

Of course, we couldn’t leave the U.S. without filling up gas. At CAD$1.64/litre (USD$4.58/gallon), we spent 25% less than if we had filled up back home. The savings were even more pronounced as the price recently hit CAD$2.10/litre in Canada (USD$6.20/gallon). And with a full tank of gas and junk food in our stomachs, we concluded our three-hour journey in the exclave.

Our in-and-out trip to Point Roberts made me realize how lucky we are to have such good relations between our countries. We take for granted our ability to cross the border with such ease; I know that crossing America’s other border would be a completely different experience. Even though Vancouverites are only a 30-minute drive from Point Roberts, it’s unfortunate that visiting the community is an afterthought to many. I hope that as the pandemic subsides, Point Roberts will get the awareness it deserves from its neighbours above the 49th!

The Corbett British Columbia-Washington International Exchange Program Fund provides an opportunity for undergraduate students at the University of Washington to spend two semesters at the University of British Columbia or University of Victoria; and for students from the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria to spend three quarters at the University of Washington.