Point Roberts, Wash.: A quirky enclave across the border from Vancouver

Published: May 29, 2020

Beach at Point Roberts, Wash. Photo by Kamil Bialous

Point Roberts, Washington: This quirky enclave just south of the border has its own unique personality.

Walt Vanderrijst was standing at a clifftop lookout in Lily Point Marine Park in Point Roberts late last summer when an older gentleman limped along with his walking stick. He’d just spotted a bald eagle, a sighting that used to be rarer. “They say there are more here than in Brackendale,” the man said, glowing. “Even Alaska. The environment is really changing.”

Walt is a guy who’s rarely at a loss for words, but he held his tongue. Boundary Bay, with all its intertidal life, provides a rich habitat for eagles, and Lily Point is the second largest bald eagle roost in North America. But Walt knows that those majestic birds can sometimes be found at the Vancouver landfill, just a few kilometres away. When salmon isn’t on the menu, all those eagles peering down from the trees won’t turn their beaks up at the odd scrap or some of the scavengers the landfill attracts, and the old fella probably didn’t want to hear that. As everyone who spends any time in Point Roberts knows, weird facts and incongruous ways are the everyday norm, and sometimes it’s best to enjoy what you have and not think too much about why it might be so.

Interprovincial travel restrictions deny seasonal residents, cottagers

Point Roberts is as strange as a Canadian cottaging enclave gets. For one thing, there’s that almost urban setting, across the street from suburban Tsawwassen and just a 45-minute drive from downtown Vancouver. For another, despite Point Roberts’ proximity to the big city, its real estate economy seems quaintly out of whack, with prices that look like they’re from a bygone era. Finally, and crucially, it’s not really an enclave, but an exclave, a stranded portion of American soil accessible only from Canada. Basically, it defies most of what people think they know about cottaging, if not in fact life in the 21st century. Guarding that 1,200-hectare peninsula of U.S. soil, there is definitely no border wall—long stretches lack even a border fence. On the other hand, there’s no mistaking which side of the boundary you’re on. Tsawwassen, B.C., is an upscale kind of place, where lawns are lush and building lots start at around $1 million; in endearingly scruffy Point Roberts, Wash., lots run for as little as $20,000 Cdn., and fairly choice ones fetch $100,000, a sum that might even get you a basic, but functional, cottage. It’s no wonder that on sunny weekends like this, cottagers from Vancouver and vicinity outnumber the 1,300 or so full-time residents three or four to one.

Border marker
Border marker. Photo by Kamil Bialous

Being so close to home affects both the quality and quantity of the cottage experience, says Walt, and he would know. The last place that he and his wife, Aliki Salmas, owned was a float home anchored in a bay off Saltspring Island, reached by a journey involving ferry waits and transfers, followed by a boat ride, that sometimes took as long as five hours. “If the skiff started,” recalls Walt. “Woo!”

That place was idyllic, until it wasn’t. One complication was their dog at the time, who couldn’t handle the ferry rides. “Something about the vibrations,” says Aliki, a professional photographer who tackles projects such as the recently published book Vineyard Dogs of the Okanagan while also pulling server shifts at a fine dining restaurant in downtown Vancouver. Then, one day—“It was the worst day ever,” says Walt—he arrived after a journey even more arduous than usual and found that someone had broken into the float home, and his tools and the generator were gone.

By comparison, Point Roberts is a breeze. A contractor who’s equally at home working on film sets or renovating a kitchen, Walt nips back and forth even during a week when he’s working. “Fifty-eight,” he says, after tallying up the nights he spent at Point Roberts last year. “Mostly just a night or two, but the longest was eight days.”

Appropriately enough, the couple ended up in Point Roberts as much by accident as by design. After they sold the Saltspring place, they were at a loss for what to do next. Walt has always had a boat, currently a 17-foot Boston Whaler. Aliki’s dog needed a place to run. Meantime, their downtown Vancouver loft lacked both personal space and an outdoor area, and upgrading to somewhere bigger with a balcony would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Vancouver real estate,” explains Walt.

Around then a pal invited the couple down to see his place in Point Roberts. “Pretty cool,” they agreed of a spot that neither of them had truly explored. And, more than that, cheap! They looked at several cottages priced at between $110,000 and $170,000 U.S., but they also quickly realized that, as small as “the Point” might be, it still manages to contain several distinct neighbourhoods.

At its centre, on streets near the border crossing, Point Roberts looks and acts like a border town, albeit one sprinkled along a gap-toothed grid lined by intermittent forest. Parcel pickup depots (there are a number of them, for Canadians who want to save on international shipping charges) and gas stations are the mainstays, with only a couple of blocks that verge on the village-like. It’s mostly in this vicinity that the $20,000 U.S. building lots and $100,000 U.S. cottages are found, Walt notes, adding, “It’s really jam-packed, with neighbours everywhere, side by side by side.”

A couple of right turns after entering the U.S. got them to the Point’s northwest corner, a quadrant largely taken up by a golf course that has been closed for the past couple of years but is slated to reopen under new ownership this summer. There are a few dozen timberframe cottages and townhouse units here, with room for more after the course is revived. Walt’s a golfer who’s looking forward to the course reopening, but they passed on the idea of greenside living.

Heading back down the west coast brought them to an area that was once the Point’s industrial and commercial centre. Point Roberts isn’t the cartographic mistake people assume but a conscious trade-off by Britain (no doubt whistling innocently to itself) after the U.S. granted it all of Vancouver Island, rather than only the portion above the 49th parallel, in an 1846 treaty (see “How Point Roberts Got Away” and map, below). The remote American territory blossomed briefly as a staging ground for gold seekers headed up the Fraser River in the 1850s, then dozed as a military reserve until Icelandic settlers arrived in the late 19th century. An array of businesses catering mostly to the fishing industry followed, including some salmon canneries, now long abandoned. One cannery has been converted to stylish office space, but it was the transformation of the store of another cannery that opened the way for Point Roberts’ next significant industry. The Breakers, along with the purpose-built tavern right across from it, the Reef, existed to serve the needs of thirsty British Columbians, who were not allowed to drink in bars on the Sabbath. The two establishments thrived until 1986, when B.C. liquor laws were relaxed. The Breakers eked out an existence for a few more years as a live music venue, while the Reef is still open, a friendly tavern serving tasty fish and chips.

The Reef restaurant sign
The Reef restaurant sign. Photo by Kamil Bialous

At the southwest corner is the marina, and it’s surrounded by some pretty fancy places, a chunk of them home to permanent residents. What sort of person would choose to live year-round in an isolated corner of the U.S., two border crossings and more than an hour’s drive from virtually all of the public services a citizen might need? Well, one category includes non-Canadians who make their livings in Metro Vancouver but prefer to maintain their primary residences on American soil—people such as business executives, airline pilots, and, most notably, professional sports stars. No one is saying which Canucks, Lions, or Whitecaps might live there now, but Alex Mogilny and John Tortorella are among those who have done so in the past.

Another alleged category of residents includes those who arrived on the Point serendipitously, let’s call it, as clients of the U.S. federal witness protection program. The putative existence of such people is debatable, with one camp holding that their numbers must be substantial because no other spot could be more secure, what with all the border crossings. The other contends that a far more effective way to hide a person would be to help him or her lose themselves in a giant city 10 or 15 states away from the scene of the crime. Walt leans toward the latter argument. Famously, the program itself will neither confirm nor deny anything.

Immediately east of the marina, the South Beach area is a reminder of the charm of domestic architecture during the 1950s and early 1960s, when a lot of the cottages here were built. Until 1959 the journey to Point Roberts from Vancouver involved a drive along city streets to New Westminster, across the Pattullo Bridge over the Fraser River, and then through Surrey, a trip taking maybe three times as long as the current route. Then the Massey Tunnel opened, sparking a cottage-building boom in this area, with its views southward to the Gulf and San Juan Islands and east to the inlets and mountains of Washington State. Walt and Aliki loved the views but weren’t crazy about the close quarters, especially given the generally higher prices.

A ridge slices diagonally across the peninsula’s mostly forested eastern half, where Kennedy and Johnson Roads are outnumbered by streets with appropriately Canadian names like Toronto, Regina, Calgary, and Victoria. Properties are more spacious and widely spaced here, except at the tightly populated northeastern corner, where there’s a sandy beach. North Pacific waters are notoriously chilly, but these lie within shallow and sheltered Boundary Bay, and here on Maple Beach, summertime water temperatures nudge into the pleasant range. Above the high-tide mark there’s a monument marking the international boundary, but the waders and walkers below are more or less oblivious.

Beach marker
Beach marker. Photo by Kamil Bialous

During their search the couple had the encouragement of their friends, Steven Fast and Denise Holland, who bought their own Point Roberts place in 2011. Steven had been coming down to pick up parcels and was a little surprised to discover the land that lay beyond the border area. “It’s really easy to get to. You can go down for an afternoon and get a relief from the high vibration of the city and nurture yourself. You just couldn’t do that with other places,” he says. He’d bring his dog with him and sit on the beach at Lighthouse Marine Park. “It’s super peaceful. You can make a hobby of walking around just looking at the driftwood.” The couple were equally surprised by how cheap buying a place turned out to be. “It might make even more sense now,” says Steven, noting that prices in Vancouver have gone up while on the Point there’s been little change.

Walt and Aliki looked everywhere their budget allowed, but ultimately bought the first place they inspected. The cottage, which they found on Craigslist, sits on a short dead-end road extending inland from the long-ago commercial hub that’s still home to the Reef tavern. Across the road is a forest, while behind them is the community landing strip, granting them once or twice a day glimpses of prop planes’ underbellies buzzing not so many metres overhead. “It was frumpy but clean,” says Walt, who redid the kitchen, cleaned up the overgrown yard, and conjured up a new back deck area with an outdoor living room where they spend a lot of their days and evenings. Most of his considerable time on Point Roberts has been devoted to activities that look as much like work as play. “I like futzing around,” he says.

Walt and Aliki at their cottage
Walt and Aliki at their cottage. Photo by Kamil Bialous

Aliki manages only about half the days Walt does, her longest stretch so far a week of convalescence after foot surgery. There have been bouts of frantic baking, in an attempt to deal with the bounty provided by fruit trees and blackberry bushes. As for the renovations, “I let Walt do his thing,” she contends, though there was an episode after she spotted a retro school locker at a second-hand store. Walt was dead against it, but she insisted. Ultimately onto the truck the unit went, to be installed just inside the front door. Advantage: Aliki. “I love the thing,” Walt says now.

Originally built in the 1960s, the two-bedroom structure, with a form hinting at the Craftsman era, has a winning personality, all that deck space, and a nicely fenced yard for the dog. The couple agree, though, that its most cherished attribute is the surprising isolation. “Living in the city, I never get a good night’s sleep,” says Aliki. “Here it’s just so quiet.”

Two years in, Walt and Aliki have become inured to the incongruities that are the lot of a Point Roberts cottager. More restrictive Washington State fishing regulations prevent Walt from bringing ashore crab and fish that would be legit in B.C. There’s cheaper gas, but more expensive tap water, although the taste is certainly familiar since it arrives via Metro Vancouver. Property taxes are hefty, despite the lack of a sewer system (they rely on septic fields). There is no garbage pickup, and the local landfill keeps hours so sporadic that Canadians often have to either hire someone to haul their trash away, or throw it in the trunk and schlep it—illicitly—home. Most groceries cost a little more, and the supermarket is careful to note which products cannot be taken back across the border. Finally, Walt says that smart Canadians in conversation with their American neighbours resolutely avoid the topic of politics, especially these days.

So, yes, cottaging here requires that a few adjustments be made and expectations reconsidered. But once those have been done, says Walt, the closest comparison, really, is to a Gulf Island—nice and quiet, generally breezy, and with the ocean only a short walk away. And that’s Point Roberts, the tiny almost-island that’s really easy to get to and a whole lot cheaper to get into.

Jim Sutherland lives in Vancouver. This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Cottage Life West as “Point of Entry.”

Map of Point Roberts, Wash., and Canada-U.S. border

How Point Roberts got away
An anomaly of geography, Point Roberts, at the tip of the Tsawwassen peninsula, belongs to the United States because all of Vancouver Island belongs to Canada. When the two countries divided the large disputed territory between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean, Great Britain successfully negotiated that the island not be dissected by the 49th parallel—the boundary line agreed upon in the Treaty of Washington, signed on June 15, 1846. As for Point Roberts, “both countries knew of it and wanted it,” writes Mark Swenson in Point Roberts Backstory: Tales, Trails and Trivia from an American Exclave. “The peninsula was considered strategic and valuable for repelling pirates and foreign fleets.”

Ten years later, the British tried to ameliorate the oddity. Richard E. Clark, in Point Roberts, USA: The History of a Canadian Enclave, says that the secretary of state for foreign affairs wrote that “it would obviously be more convenient that it should belong to Great Britain; and as it cannot be of the slightest value to the United States, their Commissioner will probably not object to such an arrangement.” But the two sides were more concerned with the path of the boundary west and south, between the Gulf and the San Juan Islands, and the issue of Point Roberts went unresolved. There are no plans for Canada to annex. Says Pauline DeHaan, the American secretary of the Point Roberts Historical Society: “We would fight that if it ever happens.”
Blair Eveleigh

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