Growing up on The Other Border

Over the past year, I have made a few contributions to the great Borderlands History Blog (also on facebook).  I am reposting them here to keep all of my stuff in one place, and will double-post links for future contributions.

Originally published on the Borderlands History Blog, 12 December 2012

First post in the Violating “The Border” series, which seeks to challenge and complicate our assumptions about U.S. borders and borderlands


To start off, let me introduce my old hometown stomping-grounds: Whatcom County, Washington.

Situated in the far northwest corner of Washington State, my hometown of Bellingham and its county constitute the westernmost 100+ miles of the U.S. Canadian Border.  Bellingham, the largest city in the county (>100k), is 23 miles south of the U.S.-Canadian border.  Closer to the border is Ferndale (11k) and there are border crossings at Blaine (5k), Lynden (12k) and Sumas (>2k).  These crossings are all situated in the western 20 miles of the border, and as you can see from the populations of the respective towns, that region is not heavily populated.  The remaining 80+ easternmost miles of Whatcom County’s U.S.-Canadian border are either rural or back-country wilderness.  Zoom in on the map and look for settlements or even roads in the eastern portion of Whatcom County.  My own travels in the back-country borderlands of Whatcom County and the adjoining British Columbia were spent in canoes (see Ross Lake) or on footpaths and trail – more concerned about Mountain Lions and Bears than border patrols.

Does this sound like a heavily policed demarcation?  It isn’t.

For heaven’s sake, at the primary border crossing at Blaine, we find “Peace Arch International Park.”  A spacious park featuring a white arch and undulating, well-manicured, park lawns.

You can (and I have) literally walk across the grass field into Canada and visa-versa.  Every summer they host a “Hands Across the Border” event which features – you guessed it – Americans and Canadians holding hands across the border.  And, for the times I attended, I didn’t see the INS, RCMP or U.S. Border Patrol spying from the bushes.

So, why does this fit into the Violating “The Border” series?  First, it highlights that the United States has, in fact, 2 borders.  While at The Newberry Library’s Borderlands and Latino Studies seminar last weekend in Chicago, a few of us in attendance commented on how we often flippantly refer to “The Border” and everyone understands you mean the U.S.-Mexican border.  However, if you make a cursory search on Google News for “Border,” you will find plenty of U.S.-Mexican and U.S.-Canadian border items.  Second, it highlights that not all U.S. border regions represent the much talked about portions of the U.S.-Mexican border – replete with walls, drones, roving agents, and drug smugglers firing drugs over the wall via cannons, high-centering cars on homemade ramps, etc…  I grew up in the shadow of the U.S.-Canadian border.  My experiences in crossing the border, however, were anything but dramatic.

To illustrate just how undramatic much of the Washington-British Columbia border is – I offer the following Google Streetview image.

If you zoom out to the map, you will see that this image is taken from British Columbia, looking south.  The houses and hills you see on the opposite side of that farmers fence are in the United States.  As a kid my dad used to point that fence out (from the U.S. side) when taking the back-roads to visit Silver Lake or Black Mountain.  “That’s Canada,” he would say.

You see that top bend in the road?  That is just a few hundred feet across “The Border” from the previous Canadian streetview image looking south.  What a “Border” it is!  Did I ever sneak across the field, climb through the rickety barbed wire, yell at the night sky “I’m in Canada!”, Violate “The Border”, laugh and climb back into the the United States?  I’ll never tell…

4 thoughts on “Growing up on The Other Border

  1. Thanks for the post, Brendan. I too grew up at the border — in Blaine, no less. I was born in Peace Arch Hospital on the Canadian side, which you can actually see from the American side. I’m half American, half Canadian. This little border town has undergone so many changes over the years because of the very nature of its location. It’s highly dependent economically on travelers coming south, but with that come the struggles of how to “deal with foreigners.” There is the citizen population on the US side that is, for the most part, welcoming and open to Canadians, but others who are really quite discriminatory. Then there’s Homeland Security. You mention that you haven’t noticed government authorities spying in the bushes. But that has, in my opinion, drastically changed in the last decade or so. They’re not spying in the bushes because, at least as far as Homeland Security is concerned, they’re flying overhead in helicopters. They’re sitting in idling SUVs at Peace Arch Park (which has also instituted a parking rate of $10 (!), presumably to deter people from actually enjoying an open space that gives direct access to another country).

    What I think is most interesting about my experience growing up on the border – and the experience of many living there – is that there was no border. Sure, there was the lineup of cars you have to wait in to get through to the other side. There are questions and restrictions about what you can bring across, etc., etc. But work life, family life and social life all transversed the border constantly. The border was (and is) for me an artificial construction.

    • Blaine! That’s awesome. Well, to be honest, I haven’t spent much time up there for quite a while. But, the last few times I have crossed the border to Vancouver (and a couple other times on the MT-AB and MT-SK border) I noticed a stark difference. Beyond needing a passport, which I never had to present as a kid, the questioning went beyond the customary “Why are you crossing? How long will you be? Do you have any fresh fruit in the car?” At the Coutts crossing in AB a couple years ago, I had to spend a few hours sitting in the immigration building, waiting to be interrogated. Fun times….

  2. Hi! My son and I visited Cultus Lake about a month ago and took the road down to the U.S. border. There used to be a border crossing there, north of Silver Lake. We live between Everson and Lynden. Ike Iverson, founder of Everson, has a road named for him – Iverson Road – in the Canadian area just northwest of Silver Lake, southwest of Cultus Lake. It would be nice to access the area from a border crossing there!

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