Even though the Canadian side of the border-straddling Peace Arch park was closed in June, people have continued flocking to the American portion of the park.
The self-described lone ranger who oversees the American side of the park greets them all.
Rickey Blank, 68, has no problem with Canadians hopping over a shallow ditch by 0 Avenue in Surrey, B.C., to mingle, picnic and often embrace Americans, then head home — even though the international border has been closed to non-essential traffic since March 21 due to COVID-19.
In the first few months of the pandemic, the unusual park that straddles two countries at the B.C.-Washington state border became an oasis of human connection in a time of profound isolation.
It was the only spot on the border where people could wander in and out from either side, offering a loophole for couples and family members cut off from each other when the border was closed.
Peace Arch Provincial Park — the park's Canadian side — was closed on June 18 due to concerns about overcrowding. But that hasn't deterred many Canadians from crossing over into Peace Arch Historical State Park — the park's U.S. side — by using 0 Avenue, the nearby road that runs parallel to the border.
But that's led to concerns among some about a porous border, given the rising numbers of COVID-19 infections in the U.S.
'A special spot'
In his almost 50 years as a U.S. park ranger, Blank has never seen a summer like 2020.
In the parking lot on the U.S. side — where the site is called the Peace Arch Historical State Park — there are licence plates from almost every state.
"I would have never imagined anything like this ever happening. Our borders are closed and people from America and Canada are just unable to share time together. This is a special spot, right now in this time, for folks to go ahead and meet," Blank said.
On patrol, he says he sees people seeking a bit of normalcy. He's watched a woman meet her granddaughter for the first time, a mother and daughter reunite after 50 years and three marriage proposals — and that was just last Saturday.
Canadians have walked freely into the American park for 99 years and COVID-19 has not seen it fenced — so far.
"The park has been looked at to close but I was never worried. I just knew this would be treasured, and especially after the provincial park had to close — this is now more treasured," said Blank, who is expecting up to 250,000 extra visitors this year.
Blank took over as park manager about a year-and-a-half ago. He's in charge of 20 acres of grass, 21 flower beds and the white Peace Arch monument owned by Washington State Parks. The 20-metre-high structure was built to honour the War of 1812 treaties that ensure a peaceful border.
'Now is not the time'
But some park neighbours do not like the new crowds. They fear nefarious things are happening there, like people crossing into Canada and not returning. Some fear COVID-19 could also be transmitted. Visitors to the U.S. side of the park can walk in and out with no controls or quarantine provisions.
Surrey resident John Kageorge, 20, lives across from the park and wants it kept empty and safety rules followed.
"I know there's this pent-up cabin fever. People have just got to get across. But now is not the time," he said.
Surrey RCMP Cpl. Daniel Michaud says police have surveillance on the park and know people are circumventing quarantine rules.
But officers are focusing on education and erring on the side of compassion, he says.
As for asylum seekers, B.C. has seen 39 since January and only a few were near Peace Arch Provincial Park, Michaud says.
Ask Blank if he's concerned about criminals and he appears more concerned about the health of the park's sequoia.
Sitting under the tree is Sera Acacia, an American waiting to meet a romantic interest who he's not seen since February.
"I had difficulty sleeping last night because I'm very excited to see them," Acacia says.
Blank greets Acacia and moves on. He knows that the odd stuffed toy or gift has made it over the border through this park, but he shrugs. He said his job is to mow the lawns and tell visitors to split into clusters of five, stay six feet apart and wear masks in the washroom.
He is confident that activities in the park are caught on camera, and few crimes pierce this peaceful bubble.
"If I saw something overt I'd have to take action, but I have not seen that. I just think it would be foolhardy to do something like that. Has it happened? Probably, yes. I don't know," said Blank.
He apologizes that the Peace Arch monument is under wraps, as it gets refurbished for its upcoming 100th anniversary in 2021.
Blank strides along, speaking of his daughters, two of whom live in Vancouver.
"I think it's pretty special that we've had a border that hasn't been fenced — and we are so intermingled and intertwined," said Blank.
"I love the people that are here."