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In-between enclaves: not Canada, but not the U.S. either

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Children participate in the July Fourth Parade in Point Roberts, Wash., Canada's American enclave. Point Roberts, a tiny unincorporated American community of 1,300, can only be reached through crossing Canada or water. (Meg Olson)

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Since the mainland Tsawwassen Peninsula dips south just below the 49th parallel, which sets the international border, Point Roberts exists - complete with border guards and checkpoints on one side, and water on all others. (Washington State Department of Transportation )

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Beaches are a main tourist attraction in Point Roberts, Wash. a tiny American enclave about 20 miles south of Vancouver, B.C. (Sheila Monty)

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Resident of Point Roberts, Wash. enjoy their morning coffee at Maple Beach. The natural beauty and small town safety mixed with the big city vibe of nearby Vancouver, B.C. attracts many residents to this small American enclave in Canada. (Meg Olson)

Some children want to be ballerinas when they grow up, others doctors or lawyers. But when Sheila Monty's daughter was 5, she said she wanted to be a border guard.

Welcome to Point Roberts, Wash., a tiny American community about 20 miles south of Vancouver, British Columbia, which, like Alaska and Minnesota's Northeast Angle, holds the distinction of being American land that is reachable only by water or by crossing first into Canada.

With that distinction, residents say, comes the inconvenience of border regulations; but the benefits include natural beauty and a safe environment that mixes small town American life with the flavor of a big Canadian city.

"My kids are very familiar with the border guards, because they leave their American bedrooms every school day and cross into Canada for about 40 minutes so they can go to their American school on the other side," Monty said.

Things like a visit to the dentist also mean crossing the border twice. If the local supermarket is out of oranges or beef, you just have to do without them. Border agricultural regulations for those products are strict.

“But I don't like when people complain; you take that under consideration when you move to the Point,” Monty said. She has been living there for 14 years.

The enclave's fate was sealed in the mid-1800s when a treaty set the U.S.-Canadian border at the 49th parallel, while giving the whole of Vancouver Island to British Columbia. Since the Tsawwassen Peninsula on mainland Canada dips south just below the 49th parallel, Point Roberts is in American territory, complete with border guards and checkpoints on the one side that's not surrounded by water.

The five-mile-square area has about 1,300 residents, with the population increasing during the summer as tourists from Canada crowd the area, which is known for its natural beauty.

“Life here is kind of in between the two countries,” Monty said.

The duality of the place is in evidence everywhere. The town's bars, restaurants and grocery stores accept Canadian currency as the norm. Many of the Point’s homeowners are Canadians from Vancouver. The drinking water and power supply come from Canada too, and that has been a point of contention lately as Canada has refused to increase the amount of water it lets in, stifling growth in Point Roberts, which now sports a full-size golf course next to the border.

Many of the Americans have Canadian roots. Monty and her daughters were born in Canada but are American citizens. Not all of Point Roberts' families have dual nationalities, but many do.

That makes it a perfect place for Meg Olson, an American who fell in love with a Canadian man while she was studying in Vancouver. She first moved to Point Roberts to be close to Vancouver. Then she fell in love with the place.

“It's a very beautiful community, and the border prevents sprawl, keeping its small town character next to some great big city advantages,” Olson said.

In fact, Point Roberts is a rural, sparsely populated haven right next to a well-developed Vancouver suburb, Tsawwassen.

So once you leave behind Canadian suburbia with its manicured lawns and backyard pools and cross the border booth and continue driving on Tyee Drive, the closest thing Point Roberts has to a main street, you hit a line of western red cedars and hemlock trees running from one coast to the next.

Then you drive by the hardware store, the post office, the small supermarket and “too many gas stations,” Olson said. There are five to be precise, mostly there to serve Canadian drivers who make the journey south for cheaper gasoline.

The rural feeling is even in the surface of the streets. They are not covered with asphalt, but a concoction of gravel and tar.

Driving all across the Point, from the border booth to the north to the southernmost beach, takes “two minutes,” Olson said. And that's only if you keep to the 30-mile-per-hour speed limit.

Most Point Roberts residents make full use of the NEXUS program, an American-Canadian initiative that allows people who cross the border frequently to do so more quickly. A special card is used at the border once the resident passes a background check and maintains a clean record of obedience to regulations.

“It's like living in a country club where you have to show your membership card at the booth,” Olson said, adding that people protect their eligibility for the card religiously, because it can be taken away for a single violation, including bringing in banned agricultural products.

The term “gated community” is hated by many residents, but the place is so safe, many residents don't even lock their doors. It might have something to do with the fact that anyone with a felony conviction is essentially banned from the Point, because of regulations about crossing the border. Or it could just be the sense of security a small town offers.

The border checkpoint is the only viable way in or out of the community.

"It is possible to drive, fly, boat or even swim to Point Roberts," says the Web site of the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce. "Under no circumstances should anyone walk across the border into Point Roberts except at the Border Station."

Swimming, although feasible, would likely result in an immigration fine for unlawful entry into the United States, unless you swam from Bellingham, Blaine or one of the U.S. gulf islands, a 20-mile minimum distance, according to the chamber.

Point Roberts is sometimes referred to as an American exclave, a small piece of territory that is separated from the mother country and entirely surrounded by the territory of another state. But many residents don't agree with the definition. Seen from Canadian eyes it would be an enclave.

“Is exclave a correct terminology?" asked Heather McPhee, secretary of the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce. "We have quite often been referred to as an enclave, which the dictionary definition seems to fit.”

In fact neither word seems to apply as Point Roberts is surrounded on three sides by U.S. territorial waters, according to Pat Grubb, an area resident and publisher of the local newspaper, All Point Bulletin.

“Isolated from the rest of the states, yes; an exclave, I'm not sure,” he said.

Tara Nelson, who writes for the newspaper at the closest mainland town, Blaine, Wash., but visits friends in Point Roberts, said it's more like an island.

Her way of describing the place: “Point Roberts isn't America and it isn't quite Canada either. It's like an island but instead of water on all sides, one side is bordered by the 49th parallel with armed American guards and vehicle X-ray machines.”

E-mail: anb2118@columbia.edu