The United States and Canada Border Is the Most Bizarre Border in the World
The total length of the border across land and water is 8,891 km (5,525 miles) including the 2,477 km (1,396 miles) that run along Alaska’s edge. The two countries might not always see eye-to-eye, but they’ve done pretty well respecting one another’s territory over the decades.
What Makes It Bizarre?
While it is a huge stretch of land, that’s not really what makes it bizarre. Not even the fact that it’s unprotected makes it all that strange; there are big, undefended borders in lots of places, although it is getting rarer all the time.
In order to understand why the border the Canada/America is so weird, we need to go back in time to see how it came to be in the first place.
Source: The Canada-U.S. Border
After the 7 Years War
After the 7 Years War, France renounced its possessions in North America in 1763. They gave all of what would eventually become Canada to the British, but kept the sugar-producing island of Guadalupe — they thought it was much more valuable than Canada, which French writer and historian Voltaire dismissed as “a few acres of snow.”
The next major border agreement came with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, after the American Revolution. American colonists made some efforts to take Canada from the British during the revolution but were repelled.
Somewhere in the Great Lakes
The dividing line between the Canadian colonies and the upstart American Republic was defined along the 45th parallel, separating New York from Quebec, and ending somewhere in the Great Lakes.
The unofficial name of the border is the 49th parallel, which was the line of latitude that the western part of the continent was divided along after the War of 1812, from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains. In 1846, the Oregon Treaty extended the border in a straight line along the 49th parallel to the Pacific Ocean.
Unpacking the Bizarre Weirdness of the Canada/United States Border
The truth is, the border is not a straight line along the 49th parallel, because at the time the agreement was made there was no such thing as GPS to help draw things straight.
The best technology available at the time was a compass and a ball of string, so that’s what was used to mark out the new border, starting in 1846. A team of surveyors set off to demarcate the line between Canada and the U.S.
The Line They Drew Is (More or Less) Straight
Armed only with their compasses and string, they moved across the continent measuring as best they could, building markers as they went. In total, they built a series of 900 markers along the dividing line that are still used to this day to draw the border between nations.
Given the scale of the operation, the line they drew is more or less straight, but in reality it veers up and down by as much as 200 meters (650 feet) from the actual longitudinal line.
Some Homes Sit on the International Line
One of those anomalies are the twin cities of Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec. They’re essentially one town, with the border between countries separated only by flower pots.
Some homes sit on the international line so that the front door enters from Canada and the back door leaves into America. They even have a combination library/theater built on both American and Canadian soil. Each country has its own separate entrance.
In Port Roberts, Americans Have to Come to Canada to Borrow a Library Book
Performers need to be in Canada, though, because the stage is on the Canadian side. Then there is Point Roberts, Washington, a small American town south of Vancouver Island.
When determining the border along the 49th parallel, Point Roberts went unnoticed. It’s a little bit north of the 49th, and is now separated from the rest of the U.S. by a circle of Canada. It’s not such a big deal, except that this town of 1,300 people only has a primary school.
You Don't Even Need a Passport To Enter Hyder, Alaska
For most of their history, the two countries did not demand a passport to cross the border but in the post-9/11 world, more documentation is required. Except at Hyder. No situation is odder than the Northwest Angle, which sees a small chunk of what really ought to be Manitoba claimed as part of Minnesota.
The problem dates back to 1783. The Treaty of Paris decreed that the boundary between U.S. territory and the British possessions to the north (future Canada) would run, “…through the Lake of the Woods to the northwestern-most point thereof, and from thence on a due west course to the river Mississippi.”
The Border Line Runs up Diagonally, Then Cuts Down to the Most Northwestern Point
What the people in Paris didn’t know was that the Mississippi River ends south of the Lake of the Woods, making it impossible to bisect the lake and connect westwardly to the river. In order to meet the exact wording of how the lake must be apportioned, the borderline runs diagonally, then cuts down to the most northwestern point, then continues westward.
As a result, the northwest angle of land along the lake ends up being U.S. property. Around 120 Americans are completely cut off from their country unless they take a boat or drive through Canada.
The Odd Exceptions
The border crossing at this point is not staffed, and travelers crossing between countries along the single lane gravel road are supposed to use a nearby telephone to call the appropriate customs office and make their declarations.
These exceptions to the nice clean dividing line, have been accepted for a long time. That’s just how it is. But not all border issues are recognized by both sides, and some areas are still disputed. On the west coast, the maritime border between Canada and the U.S. below Alaska is murky, to say the least.
A Few Areas Are Still Disputed
Canada claims that the border runs from the point where the mainland border between the countries meets the ocean, across the bottom of Prince of Wales Island (Taan in Tlingit, the indigenous peoples of the area) — the southernmost Alaskan island.
This is according to a 1903 Alaska Boundary Treaty. The United States claims that the treaty only designated which islands are part of which country, and that the maritime border runs equal distance between land masses.
Canada Claims This Land
Within the disputed sea territory are the Nunez Rocks, which are underwater during high tide but exposed during low tide. Canada claims this land, which is surrounded by water claimed by the U.S.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent in the Gulf of Maine, is Machias Seal Island. There isn’t much there. No trees. Just a bunch of birds, seals and a lighthouse. Mind you, they’re pretty nice birds (including puffins) and tourism to see the wildlife brings people from all over the world.
Source: Canada’s tiny disputed island
The Water Surrounding the Island Is a Grey Zone
But it’s not even this that might be the factor that makes the two nations sit down and figure out once and for all whose island it really is: the lobsters.
The water surrounding the island is a grey zone that’s used by lobster fisherman from both countries. As for who owns it, it’s still a grey zone too. The British built the lighthouse in 1832, and it has been staffed by Canada for most of its life.
Both Countries Claim Ownership of the Island
But both countries claim ownership of the island, and in order to strengthen their sovereignty claim, the Canadian government foots the bill to have continuous staff in place in the island’s lighthouse.
Another touchy area can be found near the Canadian city of Cornwall, on the St. Lawrence River. The Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne is mostly in the United States, but also contains land along the St. Lawrence in Canada. To make things even more complicated, the Canadian portion is in two provinces, Ontario and Quebec.
Source: Mohawk Council of Akwesasne
The Canadian Bit is in Multiple Provinces
First Nations sovereignty in the territory means that Federal, State and Provincial law enforcement organizations have no jurisdiction there — the First Nations have their own police force — so the countries, provinces and states cannot enforce their own laws.
This is not normally an issue, and the territory is by and large a pretty tranquil haven except when it comes to trade laws. Smuggling is a serious business in the territory, and there is a brisk illegal trade in tobacco, alcohol, drugs and firearms.
Smuggling Is a Serious Business In the Territory
Smuggling has always been a border issue. During American prohibition, booze from the north made its way into U.S. speakeasies. Before emancipation, the Underground Railroad smuggled people to safety in Canada.
Today, Canadians smuggle guns from the south, while American pot aficionados appreciate the vibrant trade of marijuana from Canada to the US. In 2005, a 110-meter-long (360 foot) tunnel running under the border from British Columbia to Washington State was used to facilitate the transportation of weed.
More and More Immigrants Are Taking Advantage of the Long, Mostly Empty Border
When people think of illegal immigrants coming north over a border, they tend to think of the one between Mexico and the U.S. However, more and more immigrants are using the border between the US and Canada to illegally enter and seek refugee status — not trying to get into America, but to get out!
In recent years, the number of illegal immigrants crossing the border into Canada has more than doubled.
Nobody Will Ever Suggest Building a Wall Between the Two Nations
Quebec sees 75% of these arrive over its border with the US, and in 2017 the provincial agency that helps individuals seeking refugee status dealt with more than six times the number of cases than it did the previous year.
In order to help cope with the influx of immigrants, Olympic Stadium in Montreal was turned into a refugee shelter. While nobody will ever suggest building a wall between the two nations, there has been a physical separation between them for years.
The "No Touch Zone"
If you happen to be wandering through the woods in the northern United States or southern Canada, don’t worry about accidentally crossing the border .
The two governments maintain a convenient divide between the nations in the form of a three-meter-wide (10 foot) deforestation zone, sometimes called ‘the Slash.’ All vegetation is kept cleared along this “no touch zone.” It’s not quite a wall, but it has the trick for both countries so far.
More Facts About the Canadian-American Border
Despite the confusing boundaries, both countries have been able to coexist peacefully. We’ll ignore a couple of squabbles such as during the American Revolution when the United States tried and failed to take over Canada.
Or during the War of 1812 when the U.S. tried to take over Canada, but failed. Hmm, maybe squabbles is not the right term to use, but we’ll just ignore these manifestations of Manifest Destiny and look at all the many years of peaceful, neighborly coexistence.
There Are 119 Official Border Crossing Stations Along the Border
Although things are pretty hunky-dory along the border most of the time, don’t think that both sides aren’t keeping track of what’s happening at all times. There are 119 official border crossing stations, where you must go through official customs to get to the other side.
These are very busy places, with a lot of trade passing back and forth every day. Around 30,000 trucks and 150,000 cars cross the border every day, carrying about 300,000 people from country to country.
Canadians Make About 40 Million Trips to the U.S.
Even though the population of the US is around 10 times that of Canada, twice as many Canadians visit the US each year than do Americans coming to Canada. Canadians make about 40 million trips to the US, while only 20 million Americans come to Canada each year.
Of the cars that go from Canada to the US, 57% come back the same day. New York State sees the most Canadian visits. Incidentally, most Americans going to Canada also hail from New York.
Canadian Travelers Contribute About $13 Billion a Year to the American Economy
Canadians stay on average for eight days in the US. These Canadian travelers contribute about $13 billion a year to the American economy. The busiest border crossing is the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, Michigan, which carries almost $500 million (US) in trade every single day.
Of everything Canada exports, 73% of it goes to the US, while 63% of its imports come from the U.S. Over 90% of Canadians live within 160 kilometers (100 miles) of the United States. Only 12% of Americans live that close to Canada.
Some of Canada and America's Oddest Border Stations
Set up on Mars Hill Road on the Canadian side and Knoxford Line Road on the American, the border crossing in Listerville served its purpose for 37 years. It was established in 1939 in this small colonial-style building in New Brunswick which was later transformed into a private home.
The U.S. border inspection services were housed in a temporary trailer that was sold about a year after the closing of the station in 1976.
Boat Access for America
This border crossing set between Angle Inlet, a small town in Minnesota, U.S. and the Northwest Angle Provincial Forest in Canada is quite an unusual one — it can be reached by land only from Canada.
The U.S. side of the border is on the upper part of the Lake of the Woods, above the 49th parallel, and the only way to approach it is by a boat across the lake. No land route from the States goes directly there.
Source: Angle Inlet
The 'Slash' Zone
The borderline between Canada’s provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan and the U.S. state of Montana is 877 kilometers (545 miles) long. It also has 14 official crossings points, including this remote location.
This image shows the two country’s treeless ‘Slash’ zone and a couple of its border markers in the area that cuts through the Glacier National Park in the States and Waterton Lakes National Park of Canada.
There are 13 drivable border crossings between the U.S. state of Washington and Canada’s British Columbia across its 687-kilometer-long (427 mile) borderline. The now-closed westernmost crossing is known as Point Roberts — Boundary Bay, on the Tsawwassen Peninsula.
Currently, there is only one crossing that connects Washington’s Point Roberts with the rest of the Canadian peninsula, but for many years this building, located at Meadow Lane, was also used as a second crossing point.
The Peace Arch
The Peace Arch is a 20.5-meter-tall (67 foot) historical landmark situated on the border between Washington and British Columbia to commemorate the Treaty of Ghent signed in 1814. It’s also the third busiest crossing points as well.
Statistics show that on a slow day approximately 3,500 cars pass through it, but on a busy one that number grows to 4,800 vehicles. As a result, the waiting time can easily reach four hours.
Source: Peace Arch Border Crossing
The Border Ferries
There are over a dozen ferry crossings too, most of which only operate from May to mid-October. This includes one that connects Wolfe Island in Ontario and Cape Vincent in New York state.
The crossing usually lasts between 10 and 20 minutes. According to travelers, the ride on the border ferries are not only an effective way to cross, but they’re also a fun trip to take every once in a while.
Source: Horne’s Ferry
Peer Pressure Closures
The former border crossing at Beaconsfield in New Brunswick, Canada, is one of many that were shut down due to various urban changes on both sides of the border.
Beaconsfield was closed in the 1960s when Canada decided to stop providing customs services there to focus on a more central location, redirecting the traffic to another River de Chute border crossing. The abandoned Beaconsfield station was unceremoniously barricaded in the 1980s.
The One-Way Crossing
The Four Falls border crossing that connects Fort Fairfield in Maine and Four Falls in New Brunswick works only one way. At this particular location, it is permitted to enter Canada, but people wanting to cross over to American soil could face being arrested.
When the crossing was opened in 1934 it was possible to travel in both directions. It was closed for a period in the mid-1980s, and now this crossing is only used during golf season and exclusively from the Canadian side.
Source: Four Falls Border Crossing
Life After Being a Crossing
The Mooers — Hemmingford border has connected Quebec and New York since 1935. The U.S. side is still using the same structure from the time of the crossing’s opening. The building was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
Since then, Canada has changed the location of their station. This image shows the original Canadian crossing office, which was converted into a private home following its retirement from active duty.
Home is Where the Border Is
What is now a peaceful home in Leadville, Quebec, was once a border station. The site was originally opened in the mid-1930s, and it served as a station for approximately five years before being closed.
In 1948, Canadian Customs reopened this station, but a few years later the office was relocated and the building was turned into a private home. The interesting fact is there is no U.S. station on the other side of the border.
Pigeon River's Outlaw Bridge
The Pigeon River crossing that connects Minnesota and Ontario was once known as Sextus City, and its most famous landmark was the Outlaw Bridge, seen here. The bridge was built in 1917 as a joint project by both countries, and it served them well for 44 years.
In 1961, a new bridge was constructed 10 kilometers (six miles) to the east, in Grand Portage, Minnesota, and the border station was relocated.
No Trains Means No People
The crossing stations on Myncaster Road in British Columbia and the town of Chesaw on the other side of the border in Okanogan County, Washington, were primarily opened to support road and rail traffic.
After the railroad lifeline was closed in 1937, the border traffic crossing this region of the country significantly decreased and the Washington station was closed in the mid-1950s. This image shows what is believed to have been the U.S. Customs office in Chesaw.
Take a Hike
The Goat Haunt ranger station is located in Montana’s Glacier National Park and operates as a seasonal crossing point between the end of May to mid-September.
Everyone who enters from the Canadian side of the border can go for as far as the U.S. station since the rest of the park’s sites can be accessed only by hiking trails. Once there, a visit to the International Peace Park Pavilion is good starting point for most of the hikes in the area.
Source: Goat Haunt
The Gold Rush Border
The Skagway / Fraser border crossing location on Alaska’s Klondike Highway has been used as a crossing point between Canada and the United States since 1898 when the Klondike Gold Rush started, but the official station was opened in 1977.
Initially, the Skagway crossing was a seasonal one, but in 1986 it was decided that this border crossing should be open year-round. However, due to severe weather condition during winter, both of the operational inspection stations are located a bit further than the actual border.
Source: Skagway – Fraser Border Crossing
Abandoned and Forgotten
In the past decade, Canada and the U.S. have had ongoing discussions about closing more of their smaller border crossings and merging some of the other rural ports of entry, but the fact is that this process has already begun.
The remote crossing stations of Flathead and Trail Creek settled at the crossroads of two dirt roads were closed in 1996, but their buildings still stand, ruined, damaged and in disrepair.
The Most Boring Crossing Ever
From the time it was established in 1951, the Big Beaver / Whitetail border crossing was never a busy place, even though it was located on a highway. One of the slowest border stations, it averaged only five crossings daily.
In 2009, the U.S. had a plan to improve their border station at this location, but since the Canadians intended to close their border office the U.S. dropped that project and the station was officially closed in 2013.
The Ongoing Battle Against Illegal Crossings
The long border separating the States and Canada can be a challenge to control, especially in remote wilderness areas. Illegal border crossings from both sides are an ongoing issue.
Over thirty thousand asylum seekers have crossed from the U.S. after entering the country illegally into Canada in the last year. If their claims get refused in Canada, they attempt to head back to the U.S. through territory that isn’t well patrolled.