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point roberts shoreline

Point Roberts is one of those funny little anomalies you spot on the map and wonder about. It is an exclave — a place that cannot be reached by land without leaving the country to which it belongs. Like the Northwest Angle on Lake of the Woods in Minnesota, that tiny bump in the U.S.-Canadian border.

It is a tiny community on the end of a small peninsula that sticks down from British Columbia like a uvula into the Straits of Georgia south of Vancouver. But by a historical oversight, Point Roberts is not in Canada, but in the United States — the county of Whatcom in the state of Washington.

When the border between Canada and the United States finally was agreed upon in the 1846 Treaty of Washington — brokered, by the way, by that 19th-century Henry Kissinger, Kaiser Wilhelm I — and the 49th Parallel became the official boundary line, it cut across the Tsawwassen Peninsula, slicing off a teensy 4.9 square miles at its end, leaving the tip accidentally in the United States. Point Roberts map

Now, Point Roberts might as well be an island. It is surrounded by water on three sides, with the Canadian border on the fourth. It is a 23-mile drive through British Columbia to get from Point Roberts to the rest of Washington.

It has made life interesting for the 950 people who live there.

For one thing, all electrical power and telephones have to be contracted from Canadian companies; yet when there is a repair problem, American companies are responsible.

And when a crime is committed — admittedly not a common occurrence — the miscreant must be helicoptered or boated back to the mainland; he cannot be squired by road through Canada and back into the United States.

The police blotter of Point Roberts is worth mentioning.

In the four months from August through November, as reported in the All Point Bulletin, the local newspaper, the majority of reports were of three types: drunkenness and drunken driving; trying to cross the border with marijuana; and burglar alarms that went off accidentally. Sometimes a power surge is blamed.

There are also a few nasty tales of domestic violence: A daughter got into a fight with her mother and ”knocked a bunch of books off some shelves,” and a girlfriend threw a brush at her boyfriend.

But amongst the reports are a few worth quoting whole.

”Sept. 20: An individual reported that Camp Ruth Morton had been broken into and three fire extinguishers were stolen and recovered on the property empty. Fingerprints were taken. Case under investigation.”

”Sept. 21: A park manager in the 1400 block of Gulf Road reported that after having a dispute with a tenant, the tenant exposed his buttocks to him and his young children. The manager wished the information to be documented and the tenant contacted. Tenant denied any wrongdoing.”

”Sept. 22: A 46-year-old Vancouver, B.C., man was arrested for assault in the fourth degree after police, who had been called to the residence in the 1500 block of Panorama Drive for a possible domestic dispute, witnessed the man jerking a female by the collar and would not allow her to get up. The man was escorted back to Canada.”

U.S.-Canadian border

U.S.-Canadian border

”Sept. 29: An individual in the 100 block of Monte Road reported that his next-door neighbor had plugged a travel trailer into his house without asking. The individual does not know how long it had been plugged in. A note was left for the neighbor who had said no note was found. A summons will be sent to the neighbor for theft in the third degree.”

”Oct. 1: An individual advised that around the first of August, an unknown subject entered the U.S. from Canada and requested political asylum. The subject was Canadian and did not meet any requirements. The subject ran back to Canada leaving a bicycle and has not returned.”

So, you see, life is not uneventful in Point Roberts, especially in late September.

Point Roberts was named in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver after his longtime friend Captain Henry Roberts. Point_Roberts guard sign

It was settled by Icelanders, who scraped out a living by fishing and farming, although the soil is some of the worst in Canada. Later, canneries opened up to process the haul of fish from traps set into shallow Boundary Bay. Point Roberts reached the apogee of its fame during Prohibition, when the community was a hotbed of rumrunning.

Tables turned after the repeal of the Volstead Act, when Canadians began to come to Point Roberts on Sundays to drink. At the time, it was illegal to serve alcohol on Sundays in Canada. A thriving saloon business began that survives to this day, with the addition of bingo, although the bars advertise it as ”gambling,” because bingo just doesn’t sound illicit enough.

Things begin hopping in Point Roberts in the summer, when vacationers from Vancouver swarm the place, quadrupling the population. A marina is the central attraction. boundary obelisk

But hidden in the northwest corner of the enclave, along Roosevelt Way, is a monument of historical importance: the westernmost boundary marker along the 49th Parallel. It is a worn, lichen-crusted stone obelisk marking latitude 49 degrees north and longitude 123 degrees, 3 minutes and 53 seconds west. The surveyors who fixed the border started from this point and worked their way east.

Small customs offices are on both sides of the border on Tyee Drive. The Canadian office is newer and slightly larger. But the United States, not to be outdone, has built a new $5 million facility to replace the old one.

In the basement is a jail, needed to hold criminals until the boat can take them to the mainland.


This brings to an end the series of entries for “California and the West,” chronicling the drive from Tijuana, Mexico to Vancouver, Canada.

seattle aquarium rainy day

It is one of the unexpected symmetries of nature that the tropics should spawn the zillions of exotic flowers and vines that are its trademark, but that the abundance of ocean life grows where the water is cold. Puget Sound is cold year round.

A short list. Puget Sound has: 50 species of sponge; 200 species of annelids; 20 species of anemone; 70 species of shrimp; 25 species of hermit crab; 20 species of seastars; 36 species of sculpin; 24 species of rockfish; 16 species of limpet; and four species of octopus, including the world’s largest at up to 20 feet across and over 100 lbs., the Octopus dofleini.

And the animals of the Sound are often as exotic and lurid as any humid liana or dripping orchid.sea pen 2

There is, for instance, the Ptilosarcus gurneyi, or seapen. This has nothing to do with the spiny bivalve of the East Coast. It is not even a bivalve. It is an aquatic plume with its nib in an inkwell, buried in the sandy bottom of the Sound. It is bright orange with a fringed plumage that stretches up to a foot long. It is luminescent and produces a bright green light when stroked.

Seapens belong to the same general group of Cnidarians as the sea anemones, but the fact that their polyps are small and organized into a featherlike colony obscures that relationship somewhat.

What binds most of the invertebrates of the Sound together is color. The richness of the colors on the seabed shame the peacock. There are the three sea urchins each a different lascivious hue. Stongylocentrotus purpuratus is dayglo purple; S. droebackiensis is forest green; and S. franciscanus is 6 to 8 inches across and bright red and purple. It is a basketball among urchins.

The white sea cucumber is white as milkglass with electric orange thorns along its length. starfish pile

The starfish were manufactured by Binney and Smith. The Solaster stimsonii has 10 legs and each is striped with blue showing brightly against the field of ocher. The bloodstar is blood red; the rose star is pink; and Leptasterias hexactus has six legs and shows the color of a pomegranate.blood star

The sunflower star has up to 24 fat legs and is a dull yellow with bright orange rays.

The sea lemon is a 7-inch long nudibranch that is lemon yellow — a translucent yellow back with amorphous scores of lacy tubefeet. Puget Sound has more kinds of echinoderms than anywhere else in the world.

There are lavander abelones; 8-inch-long gumboot chitons; light blue filaments on algaed rocks that are an annelid, Thelepus crispus; crimson anemones; giant barnacles (Balanus nubilus) that are over 3 inches across; red-tissued scallops with rock colored shells and dozens of black eyes peering through the feathery antennae around the seems of the shell; gordian-knotted basket stars; warty, transparent, hairy sea squirts and sea pork; a red and pink anemone that is 12 to 15 inches across its waving tentacles.Green anemone

There is the edible pride of the Sound, the Panope generosa, or geoduck clam (pronounced as “gooey-duck.”) It is a bivalve that weighs up to 20 lbs. and, with its oversize siphon, looks like a bratwurst on a sliced kaiser roll. The meaty parts of the geoduck are so large that it cannot close its shell.geoduck

The other edible wonder is the sweet-meated Dungeness crab. Others may brag on their Alaskan king crab, but to those who have tasted the Dungeness, so much bragging on a thing merely because it is large is gauche, fit only for a Texan. The Dungeness makes the AKC seem like a can of tunafish.

So far, I have barely mentioned any fish. But they are as abundant and varied as the invertebrates. There are prickleback, gunnels, tubesnouts, pipefish, sea horses, sculpins, clingfish, and spiny lumpsuckers among the odder finny wonders.striped greenling

The painted greenling has zebra-stripes of cobalt blue on a salmon field with random purple and white spots. The Gobiesox, a clingfish, is round and fat with a flat head and a sucker on his bottom and is tan, netted with purple and with white spots or freckles. One tubesnout, Aulorhynchus flavidus, is translucent and yellow-green. It is 3 or 4 inches long, but narrow as a drinking straw and one can see his organs twitching on his insides.

By far the best place to see these zoological delights is the Seattle Aquarium. It is the best aquarium I have ever seen, making even the Coney Island show look bush league.

And the most wonderful feature of the Seattle Aquarium is the dome.Aquarium big room

Inside a huge tank of seawater, there is a many-windowed dome looking up and into the fish-filled water. The tank is decked out to look like the bottom of the Sound, one side complete with harbor pilings to gather barnacles, and the other strewn with rocks and sand. And swimming around are many of the aquadynamic shapes common to Puget Sound.

The sides of the tank scintillate with the wavering colors of sunlight broken up by the prisms of the waves on the tank surface. Through the spectrum swim trout, tomcod, salmon and catfish. The silvery salmon look like something manufactured by Boeing, like unpainted airplanes with scales for rivets. The glint of sun runs from nose to tail as the fish whips its body, propelling itself through the fluid.

The brown trout show an irridescent green when the sunlight hits.octopus 2

Huge scrotal octopods, all valves, siphons and tentacles, are strangely graceful.

A lime-white seastar rests on the sandand over it a flounder, like some Arabian magic carpet, flies, wavering its Persian body.

There are tomcod with supernumerary fins and charcoal gray dogfish with white-limned fins.

Looking sleepy among the rocks is a wolf eel with its prizefighter’s prognathous face. He is metallic blue with black coindots in bands across his body. He slithers around the floor boulders prehistorically.wolf eel 2

A sculpin stares straight at me from behind the glass with two Japanese fans for fins. A round, flattened seaperch floats slowly past the window. He has neon blue skin showing through rows of brown scales. Fom a distance he just looks brown, but up close, he is a vision.

Near me on one of the seats (church pews, I almost wrote) were four children, kicking their legs back and forth, ready to move on to whatever was next along the wall, and their shepherd, an older woman who must have been an aunt, asked almost of no one, but talking to the kids, “Isn’t it restful to watch them swim?”

But it is only restful to the adult, who has need of it. The children cannot yet understand the longing for such things.

coup de soleil, Puget Sound

coup de soleil, Puget Sound

Morning in Seattle and the drizzle slowly brightens in the dawn.

For those of us who wake up early, cities can be a problem. For although a city has a special attraction in the hours before traffic and business, it is also an oddly dead time. At 5 a.m., the light from an overcast sky slowly turns the glass on the empty bank buildings snow white; the downtown streets are vacant.Seattle roofs

And there’s really no place to find a good breakfast.

Sure, there are 24-hour chains like Denny’s, but I’m talking about a real breakfast. The fact is, a city is a slow riser. Like a groggy sleeper that first hits the snooze button, later spends a long time rubbing its eyes and finally stands under the shower half asleep, the city really takes all morning to get ready. Museums and the aquarium don’t open till 10. That’s five hours from now.

That’s one of the attractions of camping. No matter how early you get up in the wilderness, it’s open.

But there are secrets the urbanite knows. There are places he finds where he and his truck-driving buddies can get a plateful of scrambled eggs and a cup of coffee. The kind of place you don’t want to wander into and ask for Evian water or eggs Benedict.

Seattle is one of America’s great cities, or at least it was before all the Californians started moving there, before every streetcorner was anchored by a designer coffee stand.

It was a city that had a waterfront, with docks and boats. Most of the waterfront is now a tourist attraction, but the seafood companies and shipping wharfs can still be found, a little north of the aquarium and Ivar’s Acres of Clams.

In the early morning, before the tourists hit, the railroad switcher still shunts boxcars up and down a rain-shiny Alaskan Way and workers still pile fish into the backs of trucks.

There is an industrial clatter and clang along the road, under the viaduct, and steam mixes with exhaust in the mizzle.

And the city’s most beautiful breakfast can be had beginning at 5:20 a.m. on board the Kitsap.

MV Kitsap arriving in Seattle

MV Kitsap arriving in Seattle

One of the jewels of Seattle is the Washington State Ferry System and the huge, 2,000-car ferries across Puget Sound start operating each day at that hour. For a round-trip ticket of $7.70, you can board the Kitsap (or Walla-Walla, depending on which one starts the morning in the city) and take the one hour ride to Bremerton on the Kitsap Peninsula.

On board, there is a cafeteria line where you can get eggs and bacon, or a sticky bun and a cup of coffee to take to the table by the thick-painted window where you can watch Alki Point glide by as you leave Elliot Bay and enter the sound proper.

From the water, Seattle shows itself off as a seaport. You pass Harbor Island and its 10-story tall orange cargo derricks, you pass the waiting Japanese freighters anchored in the bay, and you see the working wharfs along the waterside.Seattle docks and cranes

The ferry rumbles through the water with its great diesel engines rattling the floors and windows. It churns a frothing wake through the water behind you and your coffee seems more leisurely. You get a chance to observe the weather as you eat and notice the deep slate color of the water and the patch of sunlight that breaks through near Vachon Island. Maybe the rain will break, you say to yourself.

If you’ve been here long enough, you know better.

The ferry curls around the southern end of Bainbridge Island and through the tight passages of salt water running between red cedar trees.Tacoma head on

When it docks in Bremerton, you can just stay put and wait to take the boat back to the city.

If the 2 1/2-hour round trip to Bremerton is too much time for you to spend, the ferry to Winslow costs the same and takes only 35 minutes each way. For that trip you ride the Tacoma or Wanatchee.

Either way, the trip is Seattle’s greatest bargain.

Seattle skyline, Elliott Bay

Coffeemania has abated slightly in Seattle.

There are still ”espresso” signs in drugstores and hardware stores and a local radio station advertised ”egg nog latte” at Christmas. But there used to be a Starbuck’s or a coffee wagon on every street corner. Now, they are on only every other street corner.

And the image Seattle projects through movies and Frasier of an upwardly mobile society surviving on caffeine is still at least partly true.

But there are other Seattles. There is Ballard, for instance.

Ballard is a section of town where the Norwegians live. The tourist brochure actually says, ”Velkommen til Ballard,” in ekte Norsk.

And although most of Seattle is notoriously hilly, Ballard is flat. It is looked down upon, literally and figuratively, by most of the more trendy portions of the city.



I remember living on Phinney Ridge, directly above Ballard, and looking down at night to see the whole city illuminated below me. ”Ah, Ballard, City of Lights,” I used to sigh.

The point being that Ballard was entirely too dull a place for anyone to actually live.

But although most of Seattle, at least in the media, is a white-collar town driven by Microsoft wonks and Boeing engineers, Ballard is uncompromisingly blue-collar. Along the Salmon Bay waterfront are working fishing boats. They pass under the steel-girder railroad drawbridge and through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks that connect Salmon Bay with Puget Sound.

Hiram Chittenden Locks, Ballard

Hiram Chittenden Locks, Ballard

The main street, Market Street, is lined with stores where you can buy useful things, like tools and food, and the people who live there are soft-spoken and decidedly normal.

The locks are the main tourist attraction, with the salmon ladder where, in the proper season, you can watch coho and chinook salmon swim upstream to spawn. And in another season, you can see steelhead trout come back downstream and head out to sea.

May 17 celebration, Ballard

May 17 celebration, Ballard

The Nordic Heritage Museum is a large and somewhat dusty collection of Norwegiania. Some of it is genuinely cultural, much of it has more to do with the folkways of second- and third-generation immigrants whose knowledge of the ”Old Country” is confined to woodcarvings in the form of trolls and funny-looking cookies made at Christmas.

Ballard is also a good place to shop for Norwegian cooking implements.

But if Ballard sounds more neighborly than exciting, then Bell Town may be more to your taste. That is, if you wear black clothes, tattoos and have parts of your body pierced. Belltown sign with space needle

In the area around Bell Avenue, between Second and Fourth avenues, there is a kind of neo-Haight-Ashbury growing up.

In the Speakeasy Cafe, you can order a vegetarian sandwich and sit down at a computer and check your e-mail or do the Internet research you need for the article you are writing on the resurgence of Marxism in counterculture music.

On certain days of the week at the Speakeasy, there are poetry readings and live music by bands you have not yet heard of. Belltown street

Up the street is Sit & Spin, a combination cafe and laundromat. Its walls are plastered with handbills for local bands and revolutionary art lectures.

”The Cacophony Society,” reads one, ”is a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society. We are the irreverent industrialists of mirth, gleeful unionists struggling for the liberation of daydreams and special interest groups of absurdity. You may already be a member.”

While your underwear is in the spin-dry cycle, you can wander up to the counter and ask for homemade five-bean vegetarian chili on brown rice with cheese — $2.10 per cup — or the hummus plate, with cucumbers and pita bread, for $4.10. bell street belltown seattle

The place is decorated eclectically. Coaxial cable is a unifying motif, alternating with loops of old clothes-dryer exhaust hoses. There are video games, jigsaw puzzles and a lot of young, sturdy women in black wearing Doc Martens. The men are in black, too, with the occasional plaid shirt and jeans. There is an ethnic mix, although Seattle is predominantly white. Tans are even hard to find up here where it rains all winter.

Olympic mountains precipice

Washington’s Olympic Mountains are wet. Their slopes are covered in rainforest, with broad ferns and tall redcedars with soggy, mossy bark. When it isn’t raining, it is drizzling and when it isn’t drizzling, the fog is so thick it soaks your clothes.

The western slopes of the mountains average 140 inches of rain per year; its highest point, Mount Olympus at 7,965 feet, receives the equivalent of 220 inches, most of it snow.

The Olympics are also steep. Everything in the Olympic National Park is vertical. Nearly every mountain is a towering cliff. Driving the 17-mile park road from Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge, one side of the car views an uplift of rock only inches from the window while the other side looks out over cirques whose centers plummet thousands of feet straight down.

Mountain goats manage to dance up the sheer wall of rock as obliviously as dervishes.Deer at Hurricane Ridge Olympic NP

Hurricane Ridge is the place inside the park most accessible to the outer world, with a parking lot at the end of the road and a lodge and snack bar looking out over the Elwha Valley and the wall of peaks on the other side.

Even in June, the spring wildflowers are just beginning to poke through the snowbanks on Hurricane Ridge. Clouds blow over the mountaintop and sometimes in the middle of a white out, when you are inside a cloud and cannot see what your feet are stepping on, you are treated to the peculiar vision of a hole in the scud, a circular opening that will drift past through which you can see 15 miles to the sunlit peaks across the valley.Hurricane Ridge, Olympic NP, Wash

But my favorite spot in the Olympics is not Hurricane Ridge with its car exhaust and souvenirs, but the trail to Lake Angeles.

Beginning at Heart O’ the Hills, it climbs 2,379 feet in 3.7 miles, or an average loft of about one foot for every eight feet. That is a grade steeper than any freight train can manage.

And the first time I made that hike, I went with a friend who was a bicycle messenger in Seattle, with a stainless steel cardiovascular system. I made the first two or two and a half miles just fine, but the fatigue began to do me in, while my companion might as well have been riding an escalator.

I continued, walking ever more slowly and thinking of Sir Edmund Hillary making those last steps up Everest at a snail’s pace, stopping to breathe after each choppy step.Near Lake Angeles, Olympic NP, Wash

As the altitude changed, so did the weather. What was a pleasant 55 June degrees at the trailhead became sleety as we moved from the Hudsonian biozone, out of the Douglas fir and into the subalpine zone with its spruce and cedar.

When at last the path flattened out and we turned out of the last cove and over the last ridge, we saw Lake Angeles. We had climbed from 1,879 feet to the lake at 4,196 feet and still above us, at the opposite side of the lake, were the triple peaks of Mt. Angeles rising to 6,454 feet.lake angeles

A sheer rock wall, partially obscured by mist, rose straight up to the jagged tops of the peak, like something from a Bierstadt painting.

In the middle of the lake was an island covered with Caspar David Friedrich trees and the colors of the whole scene were Thomas Moran’s.

I was standing in the mizzle, my glasses blotted out with droplets and my clothes too wet to wipe them clear.

Across the face of the cliffs beyond the lake was a line of falling water like a John Martin lightning bolt zagging its way 400 feet down the rocks and silently roaring at its half mile distance into the gray waters of the lake.

“We shouldn’t look at angels too long,” I said and we turned to descend.