Point Well Taken: Life behind the border in Point Roberts, Wash., is one of minor sacrifices and major rewards.
Driving around Point Roberts, Wash., with Lorne Nielson, owner of Nielson's Building Center, it's easy to see why this 5-square-mile peninsula is so attractive to its roughly 1,300 permanent residents and the thousands more who summer here. It has all the elements of a cozy Pacific Northwest resort town: misty shorelines on three sides, glass-fronted custom homes alongside weathered cabins, a well-stocked marina. It carries the intimate, rural feel of a small town where everyone knows everyone else. Yet only a fence separates Point Roberts from a bustling, strip-malled suburb and a short commute to a hip, urban downtown.
Only a fence–and armed border guards.
That's because Point Roberts is more than just a quiet beach community. It's a geographic anomaly: connected to Canada by land and to the United States by government. Though physically attached to the southwest tip of British Columbia, tiny Point Roberts is an American property thanks to its location south of the 49th parallel that serves as the invisible line between the two countries. Residents of Point Roberts can see the rest of Washington state to the east across Boundary Bay, but getting there is a 25-mile drive into, through, and back out of Canada.
All of this makes Point Roberts an island on a peninsula, one of many contrasts for the American, Canadian, and dual-citizen residents whose lives are made up of daily nuisances tolerated because of great returns: beautiful scenery in a secure, seemingly remote setting combined with the draw of nearby urban culture.
Though the town isn't without basic conveniences, including a post office, gas stations, a bar, and a volunteer fire department, most tasks having anything to do with government, such as getting a driver's license, health care, or education, require American residents to make the trek to the "mainland," and wait in line to cross the border four times in one day. Children after third grade make the commute daily. Voting is done by mail.
And then there are the little things: You can't cross the border with fruit (although you can buy it at the town's one grocery store), there are no clothing stores, and forget about finding a fast-food burger–or bringing one in.
"The border is a huge issue, depending on how you look at it," says Nielson. Yet at the same time, "you get kind of a rural lifestyle, but you're 40 minutes from downtown Vancouver, which is an absolutely beautiful, metropolitan city."
Indeed, with all that inconvenience comes best-of-both-worlds benefits. Urban luxuries and culture are very close by, but once you pass the border guards, you're immediately transported to a tranquil place with a slower pace. The crime rate is extremely low, since there's nowhere for criminals to run to that doesn't require showing ID.
Point Roberts offers numerous breathtaking views and outdoor activities to suit any nature lover. Snow-capped Cascade Mountains dot the horizon to the east, while endless expanses of water unfold south and west. Beachcombing, whale watching, and camping abound here, with countless other options–from skiing to hiking–a quick car or boat ride away.
These daily gives and takes are evident at Nielson's Building Supply, where Lorne Nielson and his sister, controller Kristen Nielson, approach the nuisances as minor sacrifices well worth making. The Nielson family moved to Point Roberts from Canada in 1963. Soon after, their father opened what remains the only store of its kind in town.
Like the rest of Point Roberts, Nielson's Building Center's clientele fluctuates with the seasons. The small store serves some pro contractors, but the broad inventory, ranging from drywall and cabinets to for-sale signs and flush valves, is indicative of a something-for-everyone necessity. Special orders are common.
And, of course, nothing is simple. Receiving goods is a challenge, as many U.S. suppliers aren't willing to deal with the multiple border crossings to get there. Nielson's relies on strong relationships with Do it Best and Huttig, both of which will deliver. Orders placed with Do it Best each Tuesday are delivered Thursday, which "works quite well," Lorne says, noting that it's particularly helpful in serving weekenders, who may place orders over the phone and have their purchases waiting for them.
For most other suppliers, it's Nielson's Building Center's responsibility to figure out how to get materials, Lorne explains, and to determine for which products extra effort is economically viable. Driver Michael Hurlburt makes runs to Bellingham, Wash., 48 miles away, and other areas in both countries to pick up materials at least once a week. The company has a good arrangement with Pacific Building Center in Blaine, Wash., which will hold some deliveries for Hurlburt at its yard.
One of Nielson's most difficult challenges is finding employees, who must be U.S. citizens per federal regulations that make it difficult to hire a Canadian without first proving there are no qualified Americans available to take the job. Hiring good, long-term staff is often a tough prospect with such a small pool of permanent–and American–residents to pull from.
And as any company operating near the border knows, business can ebb and flow with the strength of the Canadian vs. U.S. dollar; lately, Canada's "loonie" is gaining on the U.S. greenback. Nielson's conducts transactions in both currencies.
Traffic here is not only defined by season, but also by economics. Until recently, lower gas prices in the United States meant long lines of foreign tags at the Point's four gas stations. Long lines remain a factor at the post office, where Canadians from across the border will mail U.S.-bound packages to avoid international shipping charges.
Naturally, hockey is popular here. If you like turkey, you can have your fill at two Thanksgivings (Canada celebrates in October). And with the majority of summer residents coming from up north, Canada's Victoria Day in mid-May is the bustling summer kickoff weekend more so than Memorial Day one week later.
Cross-culture influences are just one more facet of the multiple personalities that define this bit of land jutting off the edge of North America. Whether it's dueling holidays, the inconvenience of showing a passport to visit the dentist, the solitude of a rural environment, or the sheer beauty of 360-degree mountain and water views, the unique characteristics that make up Point Roberts set it apart from other towns more than any border fence could.