Last year, we spent the summer housesitting in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. This summer, our first housesit took us even farther north and west—to Point Roberts, an improbable 5-square-mile piece of Washington State at the western end of the U.S. border with Canada. Point Roberts feels like the answer to a trivia question: “What part of Washington State that isn’t an island does not touch any other part of the state?”
From Minnesota, the U.S.–Canada border runs due west for 1,200 miles along the 49th parallel, until finally it cuts across a small peninsula that juts into the sea south of Vancouver. Most of the peninsula is in Canada, but the southern two miles, Point Roberts, are part of the United States. To get from Point Roberts to the mainland United States, you have to take a private boat or plane or drive 25 miles through Canada to the rest of Washington State. On clear days, you can see it there across the water, with the snow-capped peaks of the Cascade Mountains floating like mirages on the horizon.
Point Roberts appealed to us because it’s very quiet and green, and you’re never more than a mile from the sea. There are parks with gravelly beaches and wide views at three of the four corners of the roughly square U.S. section of the peninsula. At the forested fourth corner, less than a mile from our house, a stone monument marks the western end of the U.S.–Canada land border.
The people we housesat for have created a quirky and comfortable sanctuary in the woods. There’s a colorful house with an inside that looks like a craft gallery, every wall and beam covered with interesting pictures, carvings, textiles, and other art objects, most with some sort of bird theme. The yard is a riot of flower gardens, fountains, bird feeders, and patios where you can commune with nature and feel far away from the world. It was a perfect place to enjoy the sort of summer weather we can only dream about in Washington, D.C.: sunny days with highs in the 70sF and nights in the upper 50s.
I’ve come to realize that every place we stay has its own sounds. The sounds of our housesit in Point Roberts were the twittering of chickadees, sparrows, and other small birds; the yowling meows of the old (semi-deaf?) cat we looked after; the rushing wind in the treetops; and the deep horns of ferries pulling into the docks south of Vancouver.
It’s a good thing we like being in quiet places, because there’s not much to do in Point Roberts. There’s no town center, just a scattering of houses and service businesses. And although the Point is mainly a vacation spot (many of the houses are second homes owned by Canadians), it’s not the kind of seaside destination with boardwalks, cute little shops, or ice cream parlors. This summer, with tourism finally picking back up again, there are three seasonal restaurants, which are open very erratically (mainly on weekends). There’s also as a grocery store, a small library, and a golf course. Beyond that, vacationers have to make their own fun. Ours included walking in the woods or on the shore, zipping around on the electric bikes that the owners let us borrow, and watching the July supermoon rise over the sea.
The international border dominates life in Point Roberts. Much of the commerce in this small place revolves around gas stations (there are at least 5) and shipping services (we counted 7), which cater to Canadians who cross the border to buy cheaper fuel and to pick up packages that they can have mailed here from the United States without international taxes.
If you live in Point Roberts and want to go to the dentist, the vet, or even just a big store, you have to stop at the border, show your passport, explain the purpose of your trip, and hope the border guard is feeling friendly, and then you have to do it again on the way home. But as much bother as that is, at least the border is open now, visitors are returning, and kids who live in Point Roberts can go back to their middle schools and high schools in Canada or Blaine, WA. For much of 2020 and 2021, the border was closed because of covid, and residents felt like they were marooned on an island.
Point Roberts wasn’t always so sleepy. From the 1890s to the 1930s, big fisheries and canneries operated here, taking advantage of the huge salmon runs that occurred just offshore each year.
Then, as now, other enterprises exploited the differences between U.S. and Canadian laws. Our favorite example occurred during Prohibition, when alcohol sales were legal in Canada but not in the United States. An enterprising woman named Pansy May Stuttard built a house in an isolated spot on a coastal bluff on the Canadian side, right up against the border. By night, smugglers landed crates of liquor on the beach below her house and used a winch and cable she had installed to haul them up the hill into the United States. Thirsty U.S. drinkers who were in too much hurry for smuggling could walk up to her side door and, while standing on their side of the border, hand in some money and an empty cup and get a full cup of liquor in return.