Strange Maps: Border between Canada and USA

July 6, 2007

I’ve always been fascinated by maps. Don’t know if it’s a geek thing or not. I love finding “weird” things through maps, and now with Google Maps and Yahoo Maps, the world awaits me – sort of.

A treaty sets the western half of the border between Canada and the United States at the 49th Parallel. The border follows the 49th Parallel – actually a latitude coordinate – in a straight line from roughly north of Minneapolis, MN to all the way out just past Washington State into the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Once in the Strait, the boundary loops south and then west, so that Vancouver Island stays within Canada’s boundaries. Other than that, everything north of the 49th Parallel is Canada’s, and everything south of that is the United States’.

USA Canada western border

Simple? Not really.

In several places, the ruler-straight border creates strange mapping results. At least three practical enclaves /exclaves were created — little “islands” of property belonging to the United States but almost entirely surrounded by Canada and/or accessed only through Canada. (Well, Alaska lies north of the 49th Parallel, but, well, that’s different because, well, um, it didn’t become a state till much later, um, or it wasn’t part of the United States till after …)

The first and perhaps most well-known out of these exclaves is Point Roberts. Where the USA-Canada border reaches the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Washington State, it actually crosses one more land peninsula jutting off the mainland north of Seattle before the border actually reaches the middle of the Strait.

Map of Washington State

Point Roberts WA

Point Roberts, WA is a small community of just over 1,000 people a mere 22 miles south of Vancouver, BC. Over land, the only way to reach Point Roberts is through a single road from Canada. Of course, one can take a boat from Point Roberts to the rest of Washington State. There’s only one school for kindergarten through second grade students; older students must take the bus up into Canada, around the bay, and then back into Washington State. I think after 9/11 they had to take a ferry or boat to school, but then they were able to use the bus once again once border crossings were less chaotic.

Two other exclaves are caused by the razor-straight 49th Parallel, this time at the eastern end. The 49th Parallel border runs through (and actually begins its eastern end in) the Lake of the Woods, shared by the USA (Minnesota) and Canada (Manitoba and Ontario). But the 49th Parallel border actually skims two peninsulas jutting from Canada into the Lake of the Woods. As a result, a few square miles of unpopulated, forested land is owned by the USA, even though on the map it looks like it’s part of Canada. The larger one is named Elm Point; the other is unnamed.

Lake of the Woods

Interestingly enough, when viewed via Google Map’s “Map” view, it looks like the 49th Parallel international border doesn’t cut through any peninsulas in the Lake of the Woods:

Lake of the Woods - Map view

But switching to the “Hybrid” view shows a different story:

Lake of the Woods hybrid view

Ah-ha, the two enclaves (or exclaves, whatever) clearly show up in the hybrid view.

I can’t wrap this up unless I point out one more enclave / exclave: the Northwest Angle. Many years ago, the Canadian / USA border was set at the very northwestern tip of the Lake of the Woods, and then it would run due south to the 49th Parallel then directly west. Due to ignorance of geography by the early mappers and developers of the then-young United States, it was not realized till later that the border running south from the northwestern border of the lake would set apart a good-sized chunk of land from Canada. About 140 people live there, according to the 2000 Census. For a good idea of what life’s like there, read the book, In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien.

Northwest Angle

Enough for now! More later.

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42 Responses to “Strange Maps: Border between Canada and USA”

  1. Belle Says:

    cool! political geography can be a real hoot.

    -a fellow map freak

  2. Donal G Says:

    Great stuff! Never heard anything like it. I was in Vancouver recently and I didn’t hear anything about that first, most westerly one.

    You don’t mention exactly why the US and Canada didn’t endeavour to resolve these border mapping errors once they had been discovered. Was the political situation too sensitive at the time so that the agreed 49th parallel rule could not be altered in any great way? Why not change in more modern times? Would this annoy the current inhabitants?

  3. proudgeek Says:

    Thanks, Donal! And good question. I had to look around, and then came across an excellent National Geographic article on Port Roberts. Link’s below, and I’m also reprinting the first paragraph which pretty much answers your questions:

    Neatly drawing the border between Canada and the United States along the 49th parallel was a fine idea, except for one thing. When the line reached the ocean just south of Vancouver, it cut off a tiny lobe of Washington State, which was left hanging out into the Pacific all by itself. A few people almost immediately noticed that it would make more sense to assign this appendage to Canada, but somehow that never happened. Therefore, sometime in the 1850s the hardy residents of Point Roberts—Icelandic farmers and fishermen, cannery workers, and now a good number of retirees from as far away as Florida—began living on this five-square-mile fragment of the peninsula as if it were an island colony of some distant mother country. The scenery is gorgeous, and thanks to the guards manning the checkpoint on the border, life is ridiculously peaceful. But it is also riddled with inconvenience.

    http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0408/feature7/fulltext.html

  4. Sheila Says:

    Interesting info, Josh. What about looking at how state lines were set? One I always wondered about was why Wisconsin, the northern part, is actually the UP of Michigan??? Why not leave it with Wisconsin?

    And in MA, there’s a little bump in the border between MA and CT in western part, near Agawam…… makes one wonder….

    • Dave S. Says:

      When Ohio won Toledo in the Michigan/ Ohio War, Michigan was awarded the U.P., then a part of the Wisconsin Territory, as a consolation prize. Look at MI/OH border and you can see the jog about midway through. Prior to this war, Toledo was part of Michigan.

  5. Heather Says:

    There was a governor of Minnesota who tried to sell The Angle to Canada. I don’t know how serious of an attempt it was. Apparently that was his idea of how to solve a budget problem.

  6. anman Says:

    Here’s a funny town for your border research:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beebe_Plain,_Vermont

  7. zeeshan Says:

    dear proud geek,
    is it possible to get your email address?
    seems like you are really good in maps.
    Recently i am working on a screenplay,,. its about a an indian girl who illigally crossed the vancouver border in a coal train to enter america. its a true story however, i am not sure on the details. thus,
    i am struggling to understand the rout..
    is it possible that i get some help from you?
    pls knock me if you are willing to provide me with some suggestions..
    thanks a bunch.
    zeeshan

  8. Henry Plant Says:

    cool map, but keep in mind that the climate in Northern California is MISERABLE!! I mean, I can handle park city in the dead of winter- but, by far the 2 coldest places I have ever been in my life are southern Chile & Northern California. After all Mark Twain did say “the coldest winter I have ever spent is a summer in san francisco”.

  9. Christopher Holland Says:

    I recently seen part of this on History Channel series: The States.

    Another odd border is the border of Kentucky.
    The border was changed as a result of an earthquake causing a river to change it’s course and subsequently changing the border. In order to get to a part of Kentucky, you have to drive through another state. Google It!

  10. J. Murzyn Says:

    Your website is really interesting. There was a question about the northern most state of the lower 48 on “Are you smarter than a 5th grader”. We guessed it was Maine. We couldn’t figure out how Minnesota was the most northern point until we saw your map of Lake of the Woods where it indicated that the other shore of the lake (which I think most people assume is part of Canada) is actually part of Minnesota. The way most maps are drawn implies that the lake is the border and that everything north of the lake is Canada and everything south of the lake is the US. Not entirely true apparently. I always assumed the lake was the border. Learn something new everyday. =)

    • Santa Claus Says:

      Even if the Northwest Angle were not a part of Minnesota, the northernmost point in Maine at 47 degrees 28 minutes North would still be further south of the 49th parallel which determines the US-Canada border west of Lake of the Woods.

  11. J. Steiger Says:

    I lived in Switzerland for about 4 years and I remembered a news headliner, “Swiss-Italian border changing by the meters”. Here’s an acticle describing the details http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/melting-snow-prompts-border-change-between-switzerland-and-italy-1653181.html. Basically, the melting glaciers are shifting the border so that after about 140 years they finally have to make some changes again!

  12. TTScanner Says:

    I’m going to check out the book In the Lake of the Woods you mentioned, sounds very cool. Nice webpage, enjoyed reading about the border!

  13. Stephen Says:

    I live in Vancouver BC and often go to point roberts, the US has a ridiculous amount of security and personnel for such a small amount of land, given that millions cross illegally from Mexico every year, also if a bit of the US crossed the 49th parallel they would not let Canada have it.


  14. The 49th Parallel is a “ruler-straight border”? Not! and I’m surprised that you say this. The Mercator-(cylindrical) projection map at the top of your page is one way to describe the curved surface of the Earth on a flat piece of paper or computer screen, and that is all.

    Latitude lines all curve vertically, and all except the equator curve horizontally — most obviously, near the poles, where they make tight circles. Being a bit more than halfway from the equator to the North Pole, the 49th parallel makes a circle about 16,000 miles in diameter. If you walk along it from west to east, you will always be turning slightly to the left. The shortest distance as the crow (or airplane) flies between Point Roberts and the Lake of the Woods is not the 49th parallel but a great cicrle route that goes up into Canada, then back down.

  15. Keith Walker Says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northwest_Angle and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elm_Point,_Minnesota show Elm Point as part of the US but there is no mention of Buffalo Point noted in the above maps. However, your article mentions “But the 49th Parallel border actually skims two peninsulas jutting from Canada into the Lake of the Woods. As a result, a few square miles of unpopulated, forested land is owned by the USA, even though on the map it looks like it’s part of Canada. The larger one is named Elm Point; the other is unnamed.” On the Wikipedia Elm Point site, it shows an area in Canada marked as “Bufflo Point” possibly explaining the Google identification. Unfortunatley the map does not show westwards and eastwards enough to see where there is a second US peninsula.

    My memory from years ago tells me that there was a situation where part of Canada was similarly isolated from the rest of the country, but I cannot find it now.


  16. [...] places in the vicinity of Buffalo Point. It appears that the border moves with different views. Strange Maps: Border between Canada and USA Proud Geek According to the International Boundary Commission the border is defined by a set of turning [...]

  17. Ulcer Says:

    Interesting take on borders, I enjoyed it..

    I’m wondering though, what is the legality of hiking the vista along the meridian? I googled around and found not too much info on the topic. Might you know anything?

  18. Mandy Says:

    In researching Lake of the Woods on Wiki, I came across a reference that cited 4 of these non-island anomalies. The one not mentioned here as of yet is in Vermont.

    Fun stuff!

  19. David Petrov Says:

    Is it coincidence that you called this posting ‘Strange Maps’?
    http://bigthink.com/ideas/38662

  20. thetannyhkid Says:

    If States of one Nation can’t agree on policies, what hope is there for two Nations to agree?
    Here is the Tugun Bypass Saga – A dispute concerning funding of an important Motorway (M1) between the states of Queensland (Qld) and New South Wales (NSW) Australia.

    The Tugun Bypass is 7.5 km long, bypassing the suburb of Tugun on the Gold Coast Qld and the Gold Coast International Airport situated on the border between the states of Qld and NSW. There is a 400-metre tunnel under the extension to the Gold Coast Airport runway. The bypass connects directly to the M1 between the Stewart Road interchange at Currumbin Qld and the Tweed Heads NSW bypass north of Kennedy Drive. It has significantly relieved traffic congestion on the Gold Coast Highway corridor.

    For more than 20 years the Gold Coast has grown by 17,000 permanent residents a year, placing enormous pressure on the city’s infrastructure requirements. (in particular, the Gold Coast Highway between Currumbin Qld and Tweed Heads NSW). Speculation of the bypass began in the 1960s when the South Coast railway line was closed. (One of those stupid things thoughtless, short-sighted governments do).

    It wasn’t until the Qld Beattie Government was in office at the end of last century that a firm commitment was made to the bypass. In 2003 Acting Australian Prime Minister, John Anderson and Qld Transport Minister Steve Bredhauer announced a 50 per cent joint agreement for the project allowing the project to proceed. In May, 2004 the Qld and NSW Governments finally agreed to build the Tugun bypass along the western side of the Gold Coast Airport after NSW reneged on an agreement signed in 2000. The NSW government had previously been reluctant to go ahead with the project, citing environmental and planning reasons. And while NSW agreed to the plan, they refused to contribute financially to the road.
    In February, 2006 The Qld Premier announced the Australian Government had given final approval for the road, with construction to start the following month. The Premier said the Nsw Government imposed additional approval conditions that bumped up the price tag and 16 in NSW would be demolished to make way for the road.

    The Pacific Link Alliance consortium won the contract to work with Main Roads to design and build the road, complete with tunnel and bridges over Hidden Valley. The tunnel was built with provision for a future rail line underneath. The bypass was officially opened June 3, 2008.

    The project is jointly funded by the Qld Government 78% and the Australian Government 22% at a cost of $543 million. Despite over 60% of the road being within NSW, there is no financial contribution towards the road from the Government of NSW.

    On the Tugun bypass, there is a border marker looking like a very tall and bent metal structure that sits in the median on the border between Qld and NSW.

    The Controversy
    On Sunday 18 May 2008, days from the rivalry between the two states, the NSW State Government hit the Qld Government with the land tax charges for building part of the Tugun Bypass on NSW land.
    The Qld Premier was mailed the land tax invoice of $235,607.40 from the NSW Government. The Premier confirmed that the bill would be ignored by Qld because they did not contribute to the $543 million project.

    The NSW Office of State Revenue issued the bill to the Queensland Government on May 6, asking for the payment for five years worth of land tax assessments.The NSW Chief Commissioner of State Revenue said Qld could pay in three installments of $78,535.80 over the next three months.”Failure to comply with the payment options . . . will result in the imposition of interest and the instalment plan will be cancelled. Interest will be imposed on any outstanding land tax or penalty tax. The current rate is 14.37 per cent per annum calculated daily,” he said.The assessments related to 16 properties in the Tweed Shire NSW bought by the Department of Main Roads from 2001 for the bypass construction.
    Qld State Treasurer Fraser said at the time of the acquisition of the 16 properties, the NSW Government provided a transfer duty exemption to Qld. This was the end of the matter as far as the Qld government was concerned.

  21. Joanne Says:

    What about Estcourt Station, Maine? According to Wikipedia: “Estcourt Station does not have public road access to the rest of Maine (without entering Canada), although an extensive network of privately-owned logging roads (maintained by forestry companies) extends south of the community across northern Maine.” Friends of mine own a camp there and they can get to it through Quebec.

  22. Hugo Blanco Says:

    I drove into Pt Roberts. No Canada customs. US customs officer asked me, “You here to visit the oddity?” Gas and booze were priced in US $ but Canadian $ accepted one to one. This was, perhaps, 10 years ago. The kids, I think, can go to Canadian schools per a treaty and the BC fire brigades provide service. Cool place.

  23. Stanickzai Says:

    I am living in Washington DC, I would like to cross the Canada Bordar, how for is it, how much is the distance between Washington DC to Canada?

  24. cagway Says:

    All depends on which border crossing you would like to use. What city or cities you would like to visit in Canada. This information is readily available online or at your local library.

  25. Emily Says:

    what about the 49th parallel new border lines made because of the treaty of Paris

  26. Stefan Stackhouse Says:

    Does anyone remember the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon? Supposedly, their “Frostbite Falls” hometown was located near where the real Angle Inlet is.


  27. [...] Read about Canusa Blvd. Then there is the US enclaves in Canada. http://blog.proud-geek.com/2007/07/0…anada-and-usa/ Read about Vancouver, BC suburb of Point Roberts, Washington and Lake in the Woods Minnesota. I [...]

  28. Stefan Says:

    Without reading all the others comments you might find the Dutch-Belgian enclaves amusing. Basically you have a Belgian enclave inside of the Netherlands, and in the Belgian enclaves you still have Dutch enclaves.

    http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/baarle.htm

  29. Patrick Tyrus Says:

    What about the whole southern part of the island across Strait of Juan de Fuca. The line didn’t go all the way to the coast? But then Tyler Angyal (@TylerAngyal)’s post to wiki solves that.

  30. john s Says:

    Within the states, the border between NJ and DE is interesting. Going northwest from the Atlantic, it is the middle of the Delaware Bay and then Delaware River. Further upstream, the middle of the river is the border between NJ and PA. The oddity is around Wilmington where Delaware (the state) crosses Delaware (the river) – here’s how and why
    http://www.dgs.udel.edu/sites/dgs.udel.edu/files/publications/info6.pdf

  31. gospace Says:

    https://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=48.992609,-95.286312&spn=0.028047,0.092182&z=14&om=1
    You drive right into Canada on this peninsula in NY near Massena. And unless you pass the post office and notice the Maple Leaf flag, you wounever know you left NY. No customs, no border patrol, no fence. Can’t remember if there was a sign saying “Welcome to Canada”. Don’t remember seeing one. Campobello Island, CA has road access through Maine. Good thing the US and CA get along so well.

    • gospace Says:

      Link didn’t come out right. But, sufffice to say, there is a little bit of Canada right near Massena that can’t be driven to except through NY.


  32. Canadian border rectification must be a central goal of US foreign policy. The cease-fire lines are outdated given US military superiority. The 49th Parallel should be extended eastward, with Canadians living south of this border transported to homelands in the North. It’s insane to live with a border created by the miltary mistakes of 200 years ago.


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