BLAINE, Washington – Alec de Rham sat with his back against a stone obelisk marked “International Boundary” as he and his wife visited a girl they had not seen in 10 weeks.
Hannah Smith took a bus and bicycle from Vancouver, British Columbia, to the border to meet her “main person,” Jabree Robinson, of Bellingham, Washington.
And next to a large white arch symbolizing Canadian-American friendship, Lois England and Ian Hendon kissed with a smile, reunited for a few hours after the longest separation from their three-year relationship.
Families, couples and friends – separated for weeks by the closing of the border between the United States and Canada caused by a pandemic – flock to Peace Arch Park, an oasis on the border where they can meet, gather touch and cuddle.
The park covers 42 acres (17 hectares) of well-kept lawn, flowerbeds and cedars and alders, stretching from Blaine, Washington, to Surrey, British Columbia, to the far west of the contiguous 3,987 miles (6,146 km) border. As long as they stay in the park, visitors can move freely from the United States to the Canadian side, and vice versa, without showing as much as a passport.
It is a frequent site for picnics and sometimes weddings, not to mention an area where travelers can stretch their legs when holiday traffic obstructs ports of entry. And for now, it’s one of the few areas along the border where people separated by the closure can meet.
Authorities closed the park in mid-March due to coronavirus problems. The US side reopened earlier this month, while Washington Governor Jay Inslee eased some of the restrictions on his stay at home order, and the Canadian side reopened two weeks ago. England, from Sumas, Washington, said she had been crying when Hendon called her to tell her the news and they quickly planned to meet.
England said it and Hendon generally paid attention to social distance, but there was no question of keeping 6 feet apart when they saw each other.
“I was really depressed by this – it was a huge reprieve,” she said.
England usually takes 40 minutes to get to Hendon’s home in Surrey, and they’ve usually seen each other at least once a week since they met online three years ago. Hendon, an electrician, took care of her work during the pandemic, while England spent time with her daughter and mother, who live nearby.
The couple chat via Skype almost every morning, but England missed Hendon so much a few weeks ago that they tried to enter Canada as an “essential” visitor – a category reserved for medical workers, crews airlines or truckers carrying essential goods. The Canadian guards repressed her.
One meeting was not enough. The next day, they came back with a barbecue and steaks.
About a half-hour drive east, other families have met where the roads on either side are closely parallel to a small ditch marking the border. The visitors set up chairs opposite each other and had long conversations; there is less freedom to touch it.
Before trying it on, Tim and Kris Browning thought it might be too hard to see yourself without touching each other. Kris lives north of the border in Abbotsford, where she is a hospital cook, and Tim lives just south, where he works as an electrician for a berry producer. They got married in 2014 after meeting online; the virus has delayed Tim’s request to move to Canada.
But chatting through the ditch and a rusty railing, or in a nearby raspberry field owned by Tim’s employer, has become a weekly highlight – much better than a device, they said.
“It was really comforting to see all the families and everyone was so nice,” said Tim, who usually spends three days a week with Kris and her two children in Canada. “A border patrol officer came and said,” Why don’t you hug your wife? Go ahead, hug your wife! “