British Columbia and Washington: The Border Tour

British Columbia and Washington: The Border Tour
The Canada-U.S. border disproves the old saying that good fences make good neighbors. It’s famously the world’s longest, undefended international border and, in much of the West, it’s simply a line drawn along the 49th parallel. There are no walls or fences, just a column of concrete markers—and sometimes a shallow ditch.

To Yahk and Back

The border wasn’t always well-defined. The half-dozen ranges that separate the Pacific Ocean from the Rocky Mountains typically run north to south. So until the Oregon Treaty was signed in 1846, followed by the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, most trade in the region moved along the valleys. Canadian silver ore was shipped south for smelting, while U.S. manufactured goods moved north. The Columbia River and its many tributaries made convenient thoroughfares.

Washington's North Cascades Highway takes a cut through the rocks along the Skagit River.

The new border also threw up some anomalies. Each day, a bus crosses from Canada into Point Roberts, WA, to collect high school students. The bus then ferries them 25 miles through southern British Columbia to the “mainland” border town of Blaine, WA, where their school is located. The unkind pen of the map makers drawing up the Oregon Treaty cut right across Point Roberts, leaving a four-square-mile spit of land with water on three sides. The fourth side is the Canadian border.

I’m contemplating this curious anomaly as I move into Yaak, MT. About 30 miles northwest near the Yaak River is Yahk, BC, which boasts a gas station and a provincial park. But the Yaak River is also an important thoroughfare—for grizzlies! With no respect for borders, the bears migrate along this route between Yellowstone and the Yukon.

The western town of Winthrop, WA, on Highway 20 features wooden buildings and boardwalks.

Three days earlier in mid-September, I left my home outside Vancouver, BC, on my 1994 Ducati (Cagiva) Elefant E900. My plan: ride the Crowsnest Highway, also known as Canada’s Highway 3, to British Columbia’s eastern border, cross down into Montana and back to the coast via the Idaho panhandle and Washington, choosing the roads closest to the Canadian border. An estimated 75 percent of Canadians live within 100 miles of the U.S. border, while the northern regions of the Western states are somewhat sparsely populated, so I’m anticipating some sharp contrasts.

The Crowsnest

All highways going east from Vancouver merge at the head of the Fraser Valley in Hope, BC—the stepping off point for the Gold Rush Trail. Here, the Crowsnest spears into the Cascade Mountains while Canada 1 and 5 turn north.

The eastern approach to Washington Pass on the North Cascades Highway.

I’m fortified with a breakfast sausage biscuit from Tim Hortons. This fast-food chain, named for a Canadian hockey legend, is an institution as a restaurant and, in small communities, a de facto town hall. I join the light traffic for the climb to the 4,400-foot Allison Pass, and leave plenty of space for the grinding semitrucks as we share the steep, snaking descent into Princeton.