The popular myth that the border between America and Planet Maple Leaf runs along the 49th parallel from sea to roiling sea is bunk. Pure geographic mythology.

Share story

A CENTURY AGO, during America’s expansionist heyday, no one ever saw author and “Manifest Destiny” cheerleader Horace Greeley point across the sweeping expanse of America and urge his eager charges: “Go north, young man!”

Yet, many of us did. And to this day, most of us Washingtonians still don’t quite grasp exactly how far.

Oh, we get that the roots we’ve planted grow in soil considerably more “northern” than the relatives’ in San Francisco, Omaha, Neb., or even Chicago. But just how far north people in the region from Seattle up through the state’s “Fourth Corner” along the U.S./Canadian border truly are on the sphere called Earth is one of the region’s best-kept secrets.

“Northern” people, the common thinking goes, live in Maine, Michigan — and Canada. In Washington, we’re Northwesterners who identify more with the last half of that word than the first.

Blame bad maps, poor education (quick: what’s a Mercator projection?), popular fiction, and what one trans-border-dwelling Canadian academic terms a fanciful “geographic imagination.”

Those maps — be they on paper, flat screens, or in our minds — suggest a straight up/down North American continent in which America hogs the center, Mexico lies below, and all of Canada stretches north to fortresses of solitude inhabited by Santa Claus, Clark Kent and polar bears.

Sorry, but no.

The popular myth that the border between America and Planet Maple Leaf runs along the 49th parallel from sea to roiling sea — and by extension, that all of our Canadian friends ice skate to work and school every day on frozen rivers, dodging caribou at every turn — is bunk. Pure geographic mythology.

Look at a real map — one that shows degrees of latitude north from the equator. Follow those lines around the continent. Then watch those bar-trivia-night winnings pile up. Here’s a good (non-trick) opening question for your friends: How many Canadians live south of the Peace Arch in Blaine?

Answer: Most of them. That’s right, tundra-dwelling Puget Sound peeps: about 72 percent of the roughly 35 million supposedly Great White North-dwelling Canucks live well south of the top end of Whatcom County, most of them clustered in the dangling appendage of Hockey Nation that dips far below the 49th parallel in the Great Lakes region.

Feeling northerly yet? There’s more where that came from: Canada’s two largest, frostbitten cities, Toronto (43 degrees 42 minutes north) and Montreal (45 degrees 30 minutes), both lie well south of Seattle (47 degrees 36 minutes north), as does the federal capital of Ottawa. The southern tip of Ontario, in Lake Erie, lies at 41 degrees 40 minutes north — roughly the same latitude as the redwoods country south of Crescent City, Calif.

Of the Canadian provinces, only Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba lie entirely north of the 49th parallel; even Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, lies far south of many Washingtonians — it sits at about the same latitude as Deception Pass State Park. All three maritime provinces on Canada’s east coast lie entirely south of Blaine, as does more than half of Labrador and Newfoundland.

It’s true, of course, that most of the Canadian land mass lies far north of us — and that most of that is empty.

EVEN INSIDE national boundaries, we can claim to gaze southward at just about all other Americans. (Excepting Alaskans, who for purposes of this discussion — and many others — don’t count.)

In the Lower 48, only a boundary-glitch chunk of mostly uninhabited land at Lake of the Woods, Minn., lies substantially north of the 49th parallel. Most Puget Sounders live well north of the tippy top of Maine, whose state seal features a moose chilling out beneath a pine tree. Maine’s latitudinal line, at 47 degrees 27 minutes north, runs somewhere between Burien and SeaTac.

These facts don’t lie, they just hide in a dark corner: Seattle is the northernmost U.S. city of 500,000 people or more. Bellingham is the northernmost city of more than 50,000 in the contiguous United States. And the eclectic border town of Sumas, Whatcom County, is the northernmost incorporated place in the Lower 48, thanks to a survey error that put it a smidgen above the 49th parallel.

The upshot: We’re Northwesterners, yes. But we often mentally skip the first part of that title and think of ourselves more as left coasties — more like our friends in British Columbia.

The good news is that we’re not crazy. We have our reasons. Namely: The maritime climate fools us. If you picked up the towns around Puget Sound, lifted them off the map and dropped them, say, in North Dakota or Michigan, we’d all be appreciating our true-northness awfully quickly, in a frozen-wasteland sort of way.

What we’ve wound up with, due to our unique north-coast topography and predominant maritime climate influenced by southwesterly weather patterns, is a place that hides one facet of far-north life (temperature extremes), leaving us to do battle only with the other (radical shifts in seasonal daylight).

Those shifts are profound. Because only about an eighth of the world’s surface is north of us, the seasonal shift in the earth’s axis has an exponential effect on our days. In a town such as Sumas, the sun looms over local raspberry fields for 16 hours and 12 minutes during the summer solstice — but only 8 hours and 14 minutes during the winter solstice. Talk about a mood swing.

It’s easy for most people to overlook how that affects our daily lives. In mid-December, the sun in Bellingham rises at 7:55 a.m. and sets at 4:15 p.m. In La Jolla, Calif., the sun is up by 6:42 a.m. and sets at 4:45. A midwinter day in Everett is about 8 hours and 20 minutes. In Phoenix, it’s almost 10 hours; in Miami, 10½.

What does it mean for us? During midwinter in Washington’s “Fourth Corner,” the “3:30 rule” is widely in effect: If you don’t get your stuff together in time to walk your dog, prune the dogwoods or mend the fence by 3:30 p.m., you’re going to be finishing in the dark.

Is there any wonder some of us don’t have time to find our true place on the globe?

WE ARE hardly alone in that regard, says David Rossiter, a Western Washington University professor who lives in Vancouver, B.C., and for the past 10 years has commuted daily to Bellingham.

“The geographical imagination of Americans certainly is not very sophisticated when it comes to Canada,” says Rossiter, director of WWU’s Center for Canadian-American Studies. “But Canadians shouldn’t be too smug. It’s a two-way street.”

Rossiter agrees that the mental maps of most Washingtonians belie their northern location — and that their concept of the living space of Canadians is predictably flawed, thanks to mass culture depictions of Canadians as northern people.

“North and south are not just points on the compass,” but actual states of mind, he says.

But Rossiter, who makes a living thinking about these things, believes it’s even more complicated — and interesting — than just that. The phenomenon is even more localized in places such as Whatcom County and southwestern British Columbia, where residents’ already complicated local mental maps are further confused by an additional layer — an international border dividing the north of one nation from the south of another.

B.C. residents, particularly in Vancouver and B.C.’s lower mainland, have a distinctly “far-Western” geographical imagination, Rossiter says. But because of Canada’s great northern expanses, it’s also tinted with its own sense of sunny southernness, which clashes noticeably with a northern-outpost mentality in the upper reaches of rural Whatcom County.

Perceptions get turned upside down when one crosses the border in either direction. Vancouverites headed south see a decrease in urbanization, and a more-rural landscape — something they typically identify with heading north. During winter storms, they might travel south on neatly snowplowed roads to the U.S. border, then enter a veritable winter wonderland, where no one thought to do that, in the largely unpeopled northern reaches of Whatcom County.

Conversely, Bellinghamsters going north wind up experiencing landscapes increasingly densely populated and urban — a local glitch in their own broader mental map, says Rossiter, who calls this a “fascinating regional example of ways in which our cultural geography and physical space intermingle to produce geographical imaginations.”

NO SUCH confusion exists in the physical world that surrounds us, which is very hip to its own northern exposure. Everything about the physical world of the Pacific Northwest is shaped by its latitudinal reality, from the plants that grow here to animal behavior, tides, species selection — even weather.

It seems a safe assumption, in fact, to speculate that our radical sunlight mood swings might have influenced our settlement patterns. Is it possible that familiar livelihoods weren’t the only comforting attraction for some of our earliest-arriving (and longest-staying) immigrants from Scandinavia — people whose experience in the even-farther north must have made local conditions seem familiar, but a relative cakewalk?

For most of us today, the impact of our place on the globe plays out largely in the subconscious — in ways that affect us more than we might realize, particularly if we have come to see them as normal.

For people in most of the country, the annual “fall back” exercise of ending daylight-saving time is but a minor bother. Here, it is taken as a maddening annual affront — a nonsensical taking of something we desperately need — an extra hour to get stuff done. We get irate, complain to Facebook friends, then go on about our business, letting it go for another year as we stumble around in the inky dark to bring in the garbage cans after work.

The dearth of midwinter daylight proves the toughest adjustment to many area newcomers. And it extracts a largely silent toll on the psyches of even the natives. Large numbers of us, some diagnosed, some not, suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression linked to sunlight deprivation.

Modern society has responded to this realization, in small ways: Some libraries have installed gleaming fluorescent bulbs in reading rooms, rebranding them as “daylight lounges.” Coffee shops, such as West Seattle’s Helios Bar, serve up light-therapy boxes alongside the preferred dark-mood-slaying local drug of choice, caffeine.

Doctors in Whatcom County offer ample anecdotal evidence that their patients are off-the-charts low in levels of sunlight-produced vitamin D — a growing health concern. In Bellingham, it’s not unusual to be in a bar with eight people and learn that half of them can actually name their vitamin D level from a recent blood test — not unlike the way seniors might compare cholesterol numbers around a dinner table.

HOW DO we cope? Seeking some semblance of balance where none really exists, we overindulge in midsummer, long-day sunlight activities, sea kayaking and cycling past 10 p.m. in the feeble hope that we’ll retain the charge, like a walking lithium-ion battery. We survive winter’s short days by making exposure to precious daylight a priority, heading out for a walk, run, ski or even drive while the light lasts, tackling piled-up work projects in the endless night. It works for some people; not everyone. Let’s be honest: Some of us just get grouchy and self-medicate.

Our point here: It’s an adopted lifestyle that would never occur to someone living in Los Angeles. And it creates countless logistical problems. In Seattle, many conservative Jews, in strict observance of the Sabbath, launch on Friday afternoons into what some term a “mad rush” to finish the week’s business by sundown.

And those who can function in the dark increasingly do so by employing technology, such as portable, battery-sipping LED lighting, which provides the sort of pocket daylight that allows people to do things they might not have considered a decade ago.

Bouncing LED headlamps now are on display all winter long in parks and other public places from Seattle to Blaine, where people who refuse to go quietly into the long night slap on headlamps and do so boisterously.

In many Puget Sound towns, winter warriors have taken to whomping the dark-blahs by turning the darkness into an adventure sport. Squadrons of mountain bikers in Bellingham, for example, routinely charge up and down local hills in darkness on steeds equipped with super-bright battery-powered lights.

Some of them are adrenaline junkies drawn by the thrill of hurtling downhill at high speeds with reaction time and sight distance reduced to near zero. Others are more sensible, just looking to stick with a fresh-air schedule established during the summer.

“In the winter, it’s like the highlight of my week,” says Hilary Higgins, a 49-year-old Bellingham resident, of her weekly night ride with friends on city trails. “I’m self-employed. I work at home. It’s my time to get out and do something a little crazy — and get a beer afterward with friends.”

Higgins grew up in Connecticut and remembers dark winters there, as well. But the local winter darkness, she believes, has its own unique soul-sucking power — like it somehow actually consumes light. But soldiering right through it, she says, brings a similarly unique thrill: “It makes you feel alive, gives you that buzz.”

No matter where you find yourself on the map, that’s the juice that gets people through.

Not feeling up to that? You’re not alone, fellow headlamped one. Those of us who lack the urge might take another look at the globe and make room, at least on this score, for cutting ourselves some slack. Yeah, we’re bummed out. But we’re all in it together. That’s the sort of empathy that only people huddled in the frigid climes far north of most Canadians would understand.