'Northland' Explores Life Along That 'Other' U.S. Border
Editor’s Note: This segment was rebroadcast on August 19, 2019. That audio is available here.
The U.S. border with Canada is the world’s longest international border, yet it receives very little attention. For three years, writer Porter Fox traveled that border.
Book Excerpt: ‘Northland’
by Porter Fox
No one knows where America’s northern border begins. It is somewhere near Machias Seal Island, twenty- five miles off Jonesport, Maine. Most know where it goes: six hundred miles around Maine’s panhandle; across New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York; west along the Saint Lawrence River; through four of the five Great Lakes; into Minnesota’s Boundary Waters; and straight across North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington on the forty- ninth parallel.
On paper, the boundary looks like a discarded thread— twisted and kinked in parts, tight as a bowstring in others. Much of the line was drawn before modern surveying technology was invented, so it follows things you can see on a map: rivers, lakes, latitude, longitude. Where the boundary tracks a waterway, the rule is to follow the deep- water mark, making it look like a very drunk or very old man drew it freehand— which, in some cases, is very close to the truth. The only indication that two of the world’s most powerful nations meet on these stretches is a procession of faded American and Canadian flags on either side, planted in yards, on porches, and on telephone poles.
The northern border looks like an accident in many places. It runs along the forty- fifth parallel straight through the Haskell Free Library and Opera House in Derby Line, Vermont. Near -Cornwall, Ontario, it splits the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian reservation in half, and in Niagara it bisects the largest waterfall on the continent. Homes, businesses, families, golf courses, wood pulp factories, and a natural- gas plant straddle the line. Taverns were purposely built directly on the borderline during Prohibition to welcome Americans on one side and sell them booze on the other. Where the boundary follows the forty- ninth parallel in the West, it cuts straight through obstacles like valleys, watersheds, and eight- thousand- foot peaks— necessitating a chaotic system of rules and easements to determine sovereignty and access. Pan out 50,000 feet above the line and you see the shape of America. Zoom in and you recognize the timber yards, kettle lakes, tablelands, and two- lane asphalt roads of what locals call the “northland.”
Northlanders have little interest in the rest of the Union, and the rest of the Union has little interest in its northern fringe. There are other names for it: northern tier, Hi- Line, north country. Academics who study borders call either side of a new boundary where the line is vague and where the populations on both sides are still interconnected a “borderland.” As the border becomes more defined and enforced, the borderland evolves into “bordered lands”— where movement and commerce are restricted. What was once a singular region becomes two, and both sides develop individual identities, economies, and cultures. Land on either side of the US- Canada -border exists somewhere between these two.
At 5,525 miles, including Alaska, the northern border is the longest international boundary in the world. Without Alaska, the 3,987- mile line capping the Lower 48 is the third- longest. Politicians, federal agents, pundits, and most Americans focus on the line with Mexico, even though its northern cousin is more than twice its length and many times more porous. The only known terrorists to cross overland into the US came from the north. Fifty- six billion dollars in smuggled drugs and ten thousand illegal aliens cross the US- Canada border every year. Two thousand agents watch the line. Nine times that number patrol the southern boundary. According to a 2010 Congressional Research Service report, US Customs and Border Protection maintains “operational control” over just sixty- nine miles of the northern border.
For two hundred years, the northern border was America’s principal boundary. The history of the continent played out along the line, chronologically from east to west: the Age of Discovery; the first colonies; the fishing, timber, and fur trades; the French and Indian Wars; the British Empire; the American Revolution; Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery; the War of 1812; the Indian Wars; and westward expansion.
An old friend once described the northland as “a place that didn’t change between the American Revolution and 1970.” It is true. Bands of Scandinavians, Russians, French, Scottish, Dutch, and German Americans— descended from original settlers— still live there in an archipelago of ethnic islands. Some of the largest remaining American Indian tribes— the continent’s actual first settlers— live there too, most on exploited and tyrannized reservations. Auto maintenance, home maintenance, knowledge of weather, fishing, and hunting are essential skills because there is often no one there to do it for you. You can still put groceries on an account in the northland, run up a weekly tab at the bar, or take out your neighbor’s fence after one too many as long as you fix it within the month. The landscape there represents “nature” to people who visit for a long weekend and then race home. To northlanders, nature is not a thing you go see; it is the place you live.
It is not all quaint. There are problems like teen pregnancy, domestic violence, drugs, poverty, obesity, bigotry. Unless there’s oil or gas to drill for, the economy is typically slow. In many places, there isn’t much to do in the winter except work, watch TV, go to church, get drunk, get mad, or all of the above. The winter is long. It gets dark at four in the afternoon and stays that way until eight in the morning. It gets so cold that streetlights shine straight up through airborne frost instead of down. Towns smell of woodsmoke, and windstorms sweeping south from Canada make the forest groan.
When modern civilization finally arrived, the northland changed quickly. Silvery highways now cut across the backcountry, and high- voltage power lines slice through remote mountain passes. Tourists wearing safari vests have overrun centuries- old fishing and mill towns in the Northeast, while developers have made a killing selling luxury mountain homes in former western ranching and mining towns. Before September 11, 2001, half of the 119 border crossings between the US and Canada were unguarded at night. Since then, the Department of Homeland Security has increased the number of agents by 500 percent and installed sensors, security cameras, military- grade radar, and drones— cutting off northland families, businesses, church congregations, hospitals, and Indian nations from their Canadian counterparts.
The northland’s fragile environment has taken a hit as well. In a warming world, temperatures in northern latitudes are rising faster than southern temps, threatening snowpacks, rivers, forests, habitats, wetlands, and freshwater reservoirs from Washington’s North Cascades to the Great Lakes to Maine’s North Woods. Overfishing and warming waters in the North Atlantic have left the fishery on the brink of extinction, while pollution and erratic water levels in the Great Lakes threaten America’s primary supply of surface freshwater. In North Dakota, a historic oil boom has transformed the state— and America’s effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions— in a mad dash to pump as much oil as possible before the end of the fossil fuel era.
I grew up in the northland, on an island in northern Maine. I saw how living close to America’s northern border shapes communities there. There are river valleys near the boundary where everyone speaks French, others that fly the British flag. Locals speak with a Scottish- Acadian- Massachusetts brogue that inverts a’s and r’s— distorting the word “karma” into kah- mer. General stores in the North sell poutine and rappie pie. Markets on the coast stack their counters with the same salted cod sticks and pickled hogs’ feet that British colonists once preserved.
My father was a boat builder, and we spent half the year in the North Atlantic, close to where the line begins. It was an exotic place to come of age. Fog bends the light in the morning and turns seawater green black. Wisps of it curl through the streets and strafe thick stands of pine and spruce. In the winter, nor’easter gales make the rain gutters sing and blow the front door in. In the summer, the ocean is a wide, blue basin, in constant motion and brushed by the wind.
We drove three hours farther north every summer to a hunting lodge that my great- great- grandfather built in 1909. It is seven miles from the Canadian border. Half the town is from Canada, half from America. People there rarely agree with one another, but they are quick to laugh. They tell stories in the old style, rooted in dark, underlying irony. (Mother- in- law falls off a lobster boat. Lobsterman hauls her in with twenty lobsters hanging off her dress. Lobsterman’s wife yells, “Set her again!”) They are quicker to talk about you when you leave the room. It is a small room, the northeastern corner pocket of the country.
When I was old enough to leave home, I wandered west— first to Vermont, then Wyoming. I inadvertently moved along the line, always above the fortieth parallel, and found something familiar there: ethnic communities with centuries- old histories, small towns that modern America skipped over, forgotten industries and Old World professions that rely on hands, not machines. There are fewer houses and longer stretches of nothing in between. Some of America’s last herds of wild game live in the northland. Predators roam the centerline of empty highways. Forests of old- growth hemlock, fir, birch, and rock maple; wild rivers; unnamed mountain ranges; and some of the largest roadless areas in the US cluster along the northern border like dust gathers against a wall.
Every news report I heard about pipelines, border walls, droughts, and security crackdowns along the northern boundary made me want to visit the northland again, before it changed for good. I wasn’t sure how I would get there or how long it would take to cross the country. I didn’t even know if my arcadian concept of the northland existed across the continental US. I knew I wanted to follow the Hi- Line from Maine to Washington. The border would be my guide, but I planned to tour all of the northland, ranging within a couple hundred miles on the US side. I didn’t make an -itinerary. There was no timeline. I started the way every other northland explorer had for the last four hundred years: I packed a canoe, tent, maps, and books and headed for the line.
Excerpted from NORTHLAND: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border by Porter Fox. Copyright © 2018 by Porter Fox. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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