The US/Canadian Border

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The border between the United States and Canada is the longest border between any two countries in the world. The total length of the land border is 8,891 kilometers or 5,525 miles long. In addition to being the longest border in the world, it is also the longest non-militarized and non-fenced border in the world.

With a border that long, you are bound to have some oddities, and the US/Canadian border has plenty. 

Learn more about the boundary which looks really simple on paper, but is really full of irregularities, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

If I were to tell you that of the two land borders the United States had, one of them has no disputes whatsoever, and the other as several outstanding disputes, you might think that the disputed border would be with Mexico…..and you’d be wrong. 

As of today, there are at least five outstanding border disputes between the US and Canada, almost all of which extend back to treaties with the British when available maps weren’t as good as they are today. 

There are also a whole bunch of border oddities, some of which were also the result of poor knowledge of the terrain, and some of which were done on purpose. 

So let’s start this tour of the border in the far north, at the first border disputed: the Northwest Passage. Technically, this isn’t a border dispute as this isn’t along the US/Canadian border. It is more of a Canada vs the world issue. International law holds that a country’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles off the shore. The exception to this is what is called an International Strait. These are important shipping lanes which are not subject to this rule, where shipping would have to go within 12 miles of the shore of a country.

The Strait of Malacca near Singapore and Malaysia is a good example.

Canada considers all the waters around the Arctic Archipelago to be internal Canadian territorial waters. The United States, and many other countries, consider the Northwest Passage, that being the water between some of the islands, to be an international strait open to international shipping. A strict interpretation of international law would probably work against Canada on this case, as the distances between the major islands are greater than 24 nautical miles 

The land border between the countries starts where Alaska and the Yukon meet the Arctic Ocean in the Beaufort Sea. Here too, there is a small disagreement over a wedge of water which extends north of the border. Canada claims that the border should just keep going straight into the sea as a continuation of the land border. The Americans claim the sea border should be equal distance from the land on both sides. As the American coast immediately west of the land border goes north and the Canadian coast goes south, The Americans claim that the sea border would angle to the east. 

This is mostly theoretical at this point as no one lives there and extracting any resources from this wedge would be extremely expensive and difficult, it could become an issue in the future if the waters remain clear of ice year round. 

As we go south, the border is very uneventful. Because the area is so remote and unpopulated, there was never any real attempt to delineate the border for the entire distance like they did in the south. One place of note is the Little Gold Creek border crossing on the Top of the World Highway. The highway connects Dawson City, Yukon, and Tok, Alaska and it is the least busy border crossing. It is one of the only joint US/ Canadian border control buildings, with the actual border being marked by a painted line on the floor.

Further south, the border heads Southeast along the Alaskan Panhandle. The border here was set by neither the Canadians nor the Americans. It was set in the 1825 Treaty of Saint Petersburg between Russia and the United Kingdom. Basically, the whole area denies Canada any coast along Northern British Columbia. 

At the southern tip of the Alaskan Panhandle, we have our third border dispute, the Dixon Entrance. This dispute has to do with if the sea boundary should be drawn as a straight line between two southern points in Alaska, or if it should follow the 12 nautical mile rule. A couple of rocks that are only above the surface at low tide are also claimed by the United States which muddy up the issue.

Also of note is the town of Hyder, Alaska, population 87. The fjord which separates the southern part of the Alaskan Panhandle and British Columbia is called the Portland Canal. At the end of the Portland Canal is the town of Hyder. Hyder is connected to the rest of the world by road only via the town of Stewart, BC which is immediate across the border. Hyder is the closest part of Alaska you can drive you from the lower 48 states.

Because Hyder is cut off from the rest of Alaska, they are the only town in the United States which mostly uses Canadian Currency. They also have a British Columbia area code instead of an Alaskan one. The border station here is only staffed on the Canadian side, as entering Hyder won’t really get you anywhere else in the United States. They also set their clocks to the time in BC instead of Alaska.

As we finally get down to the southern border, we have to deal with the fourth border dispute, which is the Strait of Juan de Fuca between British Columbia and Washington State. The dispute is not the border in the strait itself, but rather the water beyond the mouth of the strait. The dispute is pretty minor, and the main reason it hasn’t been resolved is that it tends to get lumped together with all the other disputes I previously mentioned. 

We finally reach the 49th Parallel, the long straight line which makes up the largest single section of the border. 

The 49th Parallel was delineated in the  Anglo-American Convention of 1818 which set the border on this line of latitude from the Northwest Angle in the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains, and the Oregon Treaty of 1846 which extended it to the Pacific Ocean, but not including Vancouver island. 

The westernmost point of the 49th Parallel border is Point Roberts, Washington. This is one of the real oddball parts of the border because when negotiating the original border treaty, they had no idea it existed. They assumed that the border would end just north of what is today Blaine, Washington on the coast. The problem was, there was a small peninsula just below Vancouver which jutted below the 49th parallel. That hunk of land became Port Washington and it is totally separated from the rest of the United States.

Children who live there have to cross an international border four times a day to go to school in Washington State. The community which has only 1,300 residents makes quite a bit of money from Canadians who cross over to purchase gasoline, and rent mailboxes where they can get items sent to an American address. 

The area was conceded as part of the negotiation which allowed the British to keep all of Vancouver Island. 

Going east the border seems pretty simple. It’s a straight line…..except it’s not. While the border is officially a straight line, the surveying teams who actually set up the border monuments didn’t quite get it straight. From the Pacific Ocean to the Lake of the Woods, the physical border can deviate north or south by as much as 300 meters. There is a joint US/Canadian commission that is responsible for the border, and all of the trees along the border have but cut such that you can clearly see the line which makes up the border in satellite images.

The International Peace Garden sits on the border between North Dakota and Manitoba. The garden is almost perfectly symmetrical on either side of the border, with a chapel that is bisected by the border. The chapel’s organ sits directly on the border, with one of the organist’s hands in Canada and one in the US. 

The next oddity is the Piney Pinecreek Border Airport which serves the communities of Piney, Manitoba, and Pinecreek, Minnesota. The runway crosses the border and the terminal is in the United States, however, there are two roads that leave the terminal, which go to the two respective border stations on a nearby road. 

The eastern terminal point of the 49th Parallel is the Northwest Angle of the Lake of the Woods. When they set this as the endpoint in 1818, they had really poor maps. What they didn’t realize is that setting the border at this point creates a part of Minnesota which juts into Manitoba and a section of land which is cut off from the rest of the United States. To reach the Northwest Angle, you have to drive into Manitoba, then cross back in. There is no border station to enter the Northwest Angle, only a video phone which didn’t even work when I went there about 17 years ago. 

From here, it follows rivers and lakes until it reaches Lake Superior. Along the Great Lakes, the border goes down the middle of the lakes and the rivers which connect them including the St. Clair, Detroit, and Niagara Rivers. The border then follows the Saint Lawrence River until Cornwall, Ontario, where the border goes inland turns flat again. Here is the oldest part of the border and where many of the border oddities can be found.

The first is right outside of Cornwall itself, Cornwall Island, which is mostly owned by the Akwesasne Mohawk tribe.  The Canadian border crossing is not on the island, so as you enter Canada from the US, you can basically hang out on the island without going through Canadian customs. Technically you are supposed to drive through and check-in, but it’s hard to enforce.

The town of Derby Line, Vermont has a library/opera house that straddles the border with their sister city of Stansted, Quebec. The books and stage are in Canada, and the checkout desk and the auditorium seats are in the US. The joke is that Derby Line is the only library in the United States without any books. 

The easternmost end of the border is located where Maine and New Brunswick meet the Atlantic Ocean. Here we have the Canadian equivalent of Point Roberts: Campobello Island. It is an island in New Brunswick that is only connected via a bridge to Lubec, Maine. Anyone driving to Campobello Island will have to go through Maine just like anyone going to Point Roberts has to go through British Columbia, or anyone going to the Northwest Angle has to drive through Manitoba. Campobello was actually the favorite vacation spot for President Franklin Roosevelt.

We’ll end this tour with the only honest to goodness land dispute between the US and Canada: the Machias Seal Island. Sitting in the Bay of Fundy, it is almost equal distance from the coast of Maine and Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, and it lies within the 12 nautical mile limit for each country’s territorial water.

No one lives there except seals and puffins, but both countries have claimed it. The UK built a lighthouse there in 1832 and Canada has extended its claim and presence on the island. In 1995 Canada eliminated their manned lighthouses along the Atlantic, except for Machias Seal Island, where they keep a team of people for “sovereignty purposes”.

Today there are puffin viewing tours that visit the island from Cutler, Maine. As of now, visitors on the puffin tours are not required to bring a passport.