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Point Roberts lures visitors to its U.S. shore



Photography by Louise Christie

Thar she blows! Yes, it's orca-spotting season again. The best place to do that in the Lower Mainland is in nearby Washington State. To be precise, from the beach at Whatcom County's Lighthouse Marine Park in Point Roberts, or Point Bob, in local vernacular. That's where Pique journeyed recently to do a little border-hopping with an eye as much to testing ICBC's enhanced driver's-licence program as glimpsing an orca's distinctive fluke.

Introduced in May 2009, the upgraded licence meets a requirement by the U.S. federal government's Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that those crossing the Canadian border into the U.S. present a passport or other approved identification. Although not everyone possesses a passport, most B.C. adults carry a driver's licence.

ICBC spokesperson Lindsay Olsen told Pique that since the EDL was introduced, demand has been brisk for licences as well as similarly enhanced identity cards for those 12 and older. "Most B.C. residents become aware of the new option when notified by ICBC to renew their current permits," she said. "However, there's no need to wait; an upgrade can be requested at any time." The defining difference from a passport is that air travel is excluded. EDLs may only be used at land-based border posts, such as Point Roberts, as well as for trips by water.

Travellers to Point Roberts, a 13-square-kilometre anomaly marooned from the U.S. mainland by a historical twist of fate, arrive primarily by automobile. In sunny months, population numbers swell to five times the year-round 1,200 occupants. This translates into traffic lineups that rival the nearby Peace Arch and Douglas crossings: at peak times, count on two hours or more. Pity residents in Tsawwassen's Boundary Bluff neighbourhood subjected to exhaust fumes from idling engines. Better to unload bikes in one of the nearby street parking sites, pedal a short distance to the U.S. Customs and Immigration building, follow the helpful pedestrian and cyclist direction signs, and present your EDL to an obliging agent. It's fitted with both an identification chip and a magnetic stripe, so a quick swipe is all that's needed to gain admission. Of course, passports afford the same privilege, but in an age of rampant identity theft, the fewer documents one carries the better.

South of the border, tranquility reigns. A leafy silence engulfs a landscape reminiscent of a Gulf Island. Coast down the community's main drag, Tyee Drive, to the South Beach marina's boat basin, a 10-minute pedal. This approach offers the fastest access to Lighthouse Marine Park. A more leisurely, scenic route seasoned with a flavour of history leads west of the border crossing along Roosevelt Road to Monument Park. An imposing granite obelisk, quarried in Scotland and installed here in 1865, marks the world's longest undefended border. At this point, all that separates the two countries is a grassy ditch. Under the watchful eye of a U.S. customs officer, Tsawwassen residents mow lawns and tend gardens.