POINT ROBERTS, Wash. — A 35-minute drive from the heartbeat of Vancouver's Expo 86, a fist of land reaches south across the U.S. border and dips its fingers into Georgia Strait.
Separated from its Canadian arm by the 49th Parallel, this community, population 700, clearly enjoys unofficial dual citizenship. No mere hanger-on of the two giant parents to the north and south, Point Roberts dares to be different, a clone of neither.
People at the Point hardly ever talk about the weather. Instead, they appear to control it in a corner of sunshine that is the envy of its Canadian neighbors. Barely 25 miles away, Vancouver bathes in an annual precipitation of 60 inches. By contrast, Point Roberts, part of a mini-desert stretching across the strait to the San Juan Islands, records an impressively low rainfall of 30 inches.
To Canada and Back
Expo-bound travelers, crossing the border at Blaine, will be intrigued to discover that, to reach this most northerly tip of Washington soil they must approach it by a 23-mile drive through Canada before crossing the line again and clearing U.S. Customs.
This oddity came about after years of British-U.S. joint occupancy of disputed land between the Columbia River and Alaska, known as the Oregon Territory. After considerable jockeying, the problem was solved not on the battlefield but at the board table.
President James K. Polk made an offer of a boundary at 49 degrees, with the line straight across Vancouver Island. The offer was rejected. The British considered jurisdiction of the whole island to be crucial, for Ft. Victoria was perceived as the center of future settlements on the coast. The English were therefore willing to give up territory on the mainland to keep Vancouver Island.
In 1848 a final agreement was reached, making the 49th Parallel the boundary of the sea but bending the line around the lower end of Vancouver Island.
For this fledgling community of less than five square miles, a lifetime of bridge-building had begun.
Early settlers foretold a melding of roots. First came gold-seekers during the rush of 1858, by boat and canoe, from Victoria, Canada, and from New Whatcom, now Bellingham. In 1894 a colony of Icelanders settled in the area, courageous and hardy pioneers who cleared the land and thought nothing of walking seven miles to Ladner, B.C., for mail and supplies.
Succeeding generations of these original families form the backbone of today's community.
Backbone is a useful attribute when it comes to preserving a distinct identity, no mean feat in the face of a tidal wave of Canadians who sweep across the U.S. border year round to savor pristine beauty under a large dollop of sunshine, all a mere stone's throw from the home carport.
This friendly invasion is, for the most part, welcomed by the 227 registered voters of the Point, who nonetheless maintain unmistakable pride in their American citizenship.
As in the early days, commercial fishing is an economic mainstay. Waters around Point Roberts still provide an estimated several million dollars worth of salmon annually. Fishermen and sportsmen berth side by side in the posh yacht basin adjacent to the site of the old cannery.
Now a modernized unloading dock, it awaits the frenzy of the late-summer bonanza. Then purse seiners and gill netters come and go all day and through the night, spilling silvered scales into sophisticated freezers in seemingly endless bounty.
Whether eating or dining is the mood of the moment, the Point, with charming lack of effort, provides something for everyone.
A good family restaurant specializing in seafood is the beach-side Boondocks, its hearty fare served with a complimentary side dish of unbroken seascape.
Hamburger buffs gather at Fat Willy's to chew the fat and boast about the day's exploits.
Yachtsmen, on their way to the marina in a tizzy to hoist a sail, cruise at high speed through Ben's Department Store, acquiring as they go super-sandwiches from a well-stocked refrigerator, a modern touch in a building that reportedly dates back to 1928 and that still houses a thriving business, relatively unchanged.
For Lovers Mainly
Nor are young lovers or old smoothies forgotten. When dusk mutes a scarlet sky and candles are lit, the subdued atmosphere of Hawthorne's promises, and delivers, an evening of leisured dining. Liberty House next door stocks a wide variety of top-quality foreign and domestic choices.
For those exploring the Point by car, Roofhouse provides a perfect pit stop. In an alpine cottage set in a clearing at the edge of thick woods, it exudes hospitality mingled with the aroma of pastries and coffee. Post-snack browsing through the art and antique shop is a must.