Thar she blows! Yes, it’s orca-spotting season again. The best place to do that in the Lower Mainland is in nearby Washington state. To be precise, from the beach at Whatcom County’s Lighthouse Marine Park in Point Roberts, or Point Bob, in local vernacular. That’s where the Georgia Straight journeyed recently to do a little border-hopping with an eye as much to testing ICBC’s enhanced driver’s-licence program as glimpsing an orca’s distinctive fluke.
Introduced in May 2009, the upgraded licence meets a requirement by the U.S. federal government’s Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that those crossing the Canadian border into the U.S. present a passport or other approved identification. Although not everyone possesses a passport, most B.C. adults carry a driver’s licence.
ICBC spokesperson Lindsay Olsen told the Georgia Straight that since the EDL was introduced, demand has been brisk for licences as well as similarly enhanced identity cards for those 12 and older. “Most B.C. residents become aware of the new option when notified by ICBC to renew their current permits,” she said. “However, there’s no need to wait; an upgrade can be requested at any time.” The defining difference from a passport is that air travel is excluded. EDLs may only be used at land-based border posts, such as Point Roberts, as well as for trips by water.
Travellers to Point Roberts, a 13-square-kilometre anomaly marooned from the U.S. mainland by a historical twist of fate, arrive primarily by automobile. In summer, population numbers swell to five times the year-round 1,200 occupants. This translates into traffic lineups that rival the nearby Peace Arch and Douglas crossings: at peak times, count on two hours or more. Pity residents in Tsawwassen’s Boundary Bluff neighbourhood subjected to exhaust fumes from idling engines. Better to unload bikes in one of the nearby street parking sites, pedal a short distance to the U.S. Customs and Immigration building, follow the helpful pedestrian and cyclist direction signs, and present your EDL to an obliging agent. It’s fitted with both an identification chip and a magnetic stripe, so a quick swipe is all that’s needed to gain admission. Of course, passports afford the same privilege, but in an age of rampant identity theft, the fewer documents one carries the better.
South of the border, tranquillity reigns. A leafy silence engulfs a landscape reminiscent of a Gulf Island. Coast down the community’s main drag, Tyee Drive, to the South Beach marina’s boat basin, a 10-minute pedal. This approach offers the fastest access to Lighthouse Marine Park. A more leisurely, scenic route seasoned with a flavour of history leads west of the border crossing along Roosevelt Road to Monument Park. An imposing granite obelisk, quarried in Scotland and installed here in 1865, marks the world’s longest undefended border. At this point, all that separates the two countries is a grassy ditch. Under the watchful eye of a U.S. customs officer, Tsawwassen residents mow lawns and tend gardens.
A wheelchair-accessible path winds through Monument Park along a breezy, forested bluff from where a trail drops sharply to the beach below. Clearly visible are the jetties leading out to the Roberts Bank Superport and B.C. Ferries terminal. A beach stroll is always a tempting option, though far easier access is found at Lighthouse Marine Park, a 20-minute pedal farther down the western shoreline.
Don’t rush. Pause to explore a nest of galleries and shops where Marine Drive intersects with Gulf Road. That’s where the Georgia Straight encountered Patty Hacker as she and her husband readied their fleet of rental bikes for the season. “Mom moved us here in the 1960s,” Vancouver-born Hacker explained. “Scott and I lived in L.A. for a while before she coaxed us back. We started Pedal Pushers Bike Rentals three years ago. Business has really taken off, especially since we deliver bikes anywhere, including the border.” In addition to free detailed maps of Point Roberts, the Hackers offered local wisdom on times, distances, and directions to challenging mountain-bike trails not as well-signed as roadways.
At land’s end sits Lighthouse Marine Park. A cluster of weathered picnic shelters linked by wood decks shares space with a three-storey observation tower atop an orca interpretive centre, posted with profiles of well-known cetaceans for easy identification. One orca, dubbed Willy, doesn’t appear on the charts, but its dorsal fin is frequently sighted by regular visitors. A commonly held hope is that the rogue whale will soon rejoin one of three pods that frequent the point between June and October. On the day the Straight dropped by, Willy could easily be spotted furrowing wave trains roiled up by currents from the trio of straits—Georgia, Haro, and Juan de Fuca—that converge here at the Lower Mainland’s southwestern tip. Abundant fish stocks attract orcas here daily. Processions of members from J, K, and L pods often spend an hour or more in plain view of the gravel beach. Border-hopping doesn’t come any more enhanced than this.
Access: Point Roberts lies 50 kilometres south of Vancouver via Tsawwassen in Delta. For information on four Whatcom County parks located in Point Roberts, and on campground reservations at the Lighthouse Marine Park website or call 1-360-945-4911. To reserve a bicycle, contact Pedal Pushers Bike Rentals at 1-360-990-0193 or visit the Pedal Pushers website. To learn more about the enhanced driver’s-licence program, visit the ICBC website .