United States/Canada Border

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Moonrise on First Connecticut Lake, near the New Hampshire/Quebec border. Click here for more of Edie Clark's Canadian border photos

Moonrise on First Connecticut Lake, near the New Hampshire/Quebec border. Click here for more of Edie Clark's Canadian border photos

All photos/art by Edie Clark

No roads follow the neat borderline between New England and Canada that you see on the map. Instead, you have to traverse, back and forth, in and out of Canada–a rough stitch that has pulled the two countries together since before either of them was a nation.

This is the story of that line–a line that was sometimes called “the friendliest border in the world”–and how it has changed since 9/11. Most of what I’ll tell you isn’t about these two countries, but rather about our own, at war with terror–not about a country, but a state of mind, a very expensive state of mind. Consider, for instance, the $26 million customs station built recently in the tiny town of North Troy (population 593), Vermont. A friend who lives nearby told me, “It looks like a fortress out in the middle of nowhere.”

It is indeed a fortress, with winged roof and huge letters spelling out United States of America, which seems like an announcement to the moose who might wander by. I pull into the station. Several agents are milling about inside, and one comes out. The traffic coming through is light. He’s military in appearance, complete with combat boots and weapons on the belt. He asks me to turn off the engine and put the car into park. He asks where I’m going, where I’ve come from, and where I live. I tell him I’m writing about the border. He asks for my passport and tells me to open my trunk, which holds my suitcase, laptop, briefcase, and picnic hamper. He doesn’t bother with my luggage, but burrows deep into the hamper. He emerges, triumphant, with a big, fresh lemon I’ve brought with me from home. A lemon can improve a lot of things. He holds it up almost delicately, like an Easter egg. It is indeed a fine lemon, and it looks even finer the way he’s holding it.

“Can’t let you get by with this,” he says. “Matterafact, just so you don’t think I’m going to take this home …” And he steps to the garbage can beside the station, lifts the lid rather dramatically, and drops it in, closing it with a clash. This vigilance for fruits and vegetables, which I am to find prevalent here, is about pests and worms and bugs that might hitchhike in with the fruits. I understand. Sort of.

In Derby Line, Vermont (population 792), the houses along Main Street are grand examples of Gilded Age style. On the day I visit last July, there’s a yard sale at one of these homes just off the town green. Three white-haired ladies sit in lawn chairs, presiding over their goods. They’re all abuzz about the raid that took place the day before.

“They went right down that street,” one says, pointing. Four men were arrested for trafficking 2,205 pounds of marijuana across the border. According to the local newspaper, the police had been watching these men since the early ’90s. They’d started by backpacking small loads across the border, then upgraded to tractor trailers. Three of the men live in town, and the ladies know them. One, they tell me, is “a good-looking man, lives in a beautiful home, has a nice wife and kids. We were always told it was his wife who had the money.”

It’s probably an old story in Derby Line. The main byway up into Quebec is called, locally, “Smugglers’ Road,” and some of these ornate homes were built from the riches reaped by transporting whiskey and other commodities during Prohibition. Or so it’s said. (There was only one other big industry in Derby Line, a machine-tool plant.) In that context, I ask the ladies whether these crimes today are much different from whiskey running. “No, not really!” they chorus. “Didn’t hurt us, what they were doing.”

The library in Derby Line is perhaps the most famous landmark along this 759-mile stretch between New England and Canada: The International Boundary cuts right through the middle of the building. Lest you think that was a mistake, it was, in fact, on purpose. Haskell Free Library & Opera House was a gift of friendship from Martha Stewart Haskell and her son, Horace Stewart Haskell, to the “boundary villages of Derby Line, Rock Island, and Stanstead,” as a memorial to her husband, Carlos F. Haskell. Mrs. Haskell was Canadian and her husband was American–hence the dual allegiance.

The cornerstone was laid in 1901, and this gesture of friendship between the two countries was constructed of granite (U.S.) and yellow brick (Canadian). The interior is elegant, with intricate woodwork and marble floors. The lobby is in the United States; the circulation desk is in Canada. A line of black tape runs diagonally across the reading room and through the rest of the building, too, a comical reminder of Mrs. Haskell’s charitable embrace of the two cultures. Now patrons are warned not to park on the Canadian side of the building if they’re American, or on the U.S. side if they’re Canadian. If they do, and they fail to report to customs, they may be arrested.

East of Derby Line, the town of Holland, Vermont (population 588), is a wide plain of farms and fields, stretching as far as I can see. I ask the town clerk, Diane Judd, whether there’s a crossing in Holland.

“Well, no legal crossing,” she replies. “But we have plenty of activity. There was an arrest just last week, and in the winter people cross on snowmobiles.”

As in many towns of the Northeast Kingdom, most of the roads are dirt. I drive down one road and come to a farm on a high rise, with open fields all around and a view of the town center and the hills beyond. I get out and walk over to the old farmhouse, which seems to have been partially renovated. It looks abandoned. Still, the lawn has been neatly trimmed, and the fields are freshly mown. Behind the house is the telltale obelisk–the boundary marker. A grassy road disappears into the woods, blocked by a big gate that sports a stop sign and warnings not to proceed any farther: the end of America.

Back down the road, I stop at a house where a woman is sweeping her front steps. I ask whether the farm at the end of the road is for sale. “I don’t know who owns that house,” she says. “I’ve lived here 11 years and I’ve never seen him.”

The next day, I visit Fernando Beltran, Patrol Agent in Charge at the Newport border station, about 7 miles from Holland. Beltran watches over 32 miles of the 90-mile Vermont boundary. Almost every border patrol agent I’ll speak with will feel the need to differentiate himself from the customs agents who check people at ports of entry. “There’s port entry and then there’s everything in between,” Beltran tells me. “It’s everything in between that we take care of.” That includes places like the abandoned farm I saw in Holland. “We have sensors,” he explains. “We know you’re there.”

Dressed in what looks like military fatigues, Beltran is charming, welcoming, easy to talk to. His speech is tinged with a slight Latino accent. But he doesn’t want to talk much about his work; he says he can’t reveal where or how agents operate or how many of them there are. Instead he talks about himself. The son of migrant workers, he grew up on farms across the country. “I started working in the fields with my parents when I was 7,” he says. “I was born in Oregon. We were there picking pears. We went where the work was–Minnesota, wherever.”

I express surprise that someone with such a background would join the Border Patrol. “My story isn’t unique,” he says. “There are a lot of agents who were migrant workers. My first relations with the Border Patrol, as a kid … We’d be out there in the field and you’d see an airplane coming and then you’d see cars coming.”

Because all agents are required to serve five years on the southern boundary before they transfer north, I meet many agents like Beltran who have come to Vermont from the U.S./Mexican border. He tells me that where he was stationed in Texas, 600 agents patrolled the one town. “It’s a lot busier down there,” he explain. “On the southern border, at dusk, you just see these people coming toward the fences, and when you see them, you know they’re just waiting for darkness, when we can’t see them anymore. It’s different here, for sure, but the bottom line is that our job up here is hard, and it’s not any less dangerous. We can’t be wrong once.”

I mention the feeling of annoyance among some Vermonters who aren’t used to being interrogated so closely. “A man brought me an issue of Vermont Life from 1964,” Beltran recalls. “It had an article about the border and how easy it was, that no one cared if you crossed.And I said, ‘Yeah, that was Mayberry. We’ve had things happen in this world now. We’ll never see Mayberry again.'”

That evening, I cross into Quebec for dinner in Stanstead, Derby Line’s Canadian counterpart. As I drive across the border, I notice that someone has planted a beautiful flower garden in a circle around the international marker. I pull over and get out to take a photograph. When I turn around, I see a Canadian customs agent gesturing furiously at me.

“Come!” he shouts. “Come!” When I reach the customs station, he admonishes me sternly: “You could be arrested! Don’t you know?” His words are inflected with heavy French tones. “You have not checked in, and you are out of your car wandering around!” I explain that I want to photograph the marker. “You are not allowed to do that,” he replies. “You are not allowed to get out of your car!” After abruptly checking my passport, he waves me through, clearly impatient.

In the morning, I stop for gas on my way out of town. Fernando Beltran is leaning on a Vermont State Police cruiser, talking with a female trooper. He waves across the parking lot, and I go over. He tells me to go up to the very top of Shattuck Hill and take a picture of the view. “You’ll see the whole lake from there,” he says. “Man, is that bee-yootiful!”

From Shattuck Hill I see cloud shadows playing on the green hills all the way across Lake Memphremagog and into Canada. Memphremagog is a mystical 27-mile-long glacial lake, about a quarter of which lies in Vermont, the rest in Quebec. It’s 350 feet deep and harbors not only the legend of a monster named Memphre but smuggling lore galore, including caves where contraband was hidden.

The tip end of the lake is surrounded by the city of Newport, Vermont, a busy little community with a surprising number of banks. I walk down to the waterfront, with its small harbor and marina, an idyllic stretch of water that would set any sailor to longing. I look for the harbormaster. There’s a little building on the dock, with a phone on the outside wall. The sign instructs anyone who’s coming in from Quebec to call the customs agent from this phone. Inside, the office has a desk and a chair but nothing to indicate that anyone ever sits here.

A burly fellow is emptying the trash. I ask where I might find the harbormaster. “That would be me,” he says.

“Where are all the boats?” I ask.

“Well,” he replies, “these are international waters, so it gets kind of messy. The waters are patrolled.”

“So people don’t want to keep boats here?” I ask. He shrugs.

“Are there harbor tours?”

“Used to be,” he says. “But they don’t do that anymore.”

I ask about the relaxed attitude of the customs station, and he shrugs again. “It’s the only way,” he replies.

The questions agents ask me at the crossings don’t seem uniform. Most, although not all, ask where I’m going and where I’m from. One asks me where I got my car. Another asks how I paid for my rental car. Another asks whether I’m carrying more than $10,000 in cash. It almost seems as though the questions are linked to the mood of the man. In general, the Canadians are nicer, friendlier, but that doesn’t always hold true.

The one thing I can’t find is a rule of thumb in their questioning. Many focus on fruits and vegetables. What if I were carrying biological weapons? A vial as small as my little finger could do untold damage. Yet they don’t seem to take any measures to find something like that. The only thing they ever search is my picnic basket. Maybe I don’t look like the type who would bring in anything more offensive than a fresh lemon. I watch the big logging trucks pass through the ports of entry without much more than a glance at their documents from the customs agents, and I think about what could be concealed in a hollowed-out log.

On the map, the Vermont border is blade-straight. The boundary, visible in places, is open at times and sometimes scribes through water–not only Memphremegog but also Lake Champlain and Wallace Pond and a few small waterways. But once the boundary meets the Connecticut River, the western edge of New Hampshire, the borderline begins to waver, like a meandering river, all the way up to Pittsburg.

Part of Pittsburg, a wedge of the Granite State between Indian Stream and Perry Stream, near Lake Francis and the four Conneccticut Lakes, was claimed for some time by both the United States and Canada. Annoyed by the conflict, the settlers declared allegiance to neither country. They’d be their own country, the Republic of Indian Stream. They even issued their own currency. The dispute was tentatively resolved in 1835, making the area part of New Hampshire, and then definitively by federal treaty in 1842. Still, there are those who to this day refuse to think of their home as anything but Indian Stream. These were the early boundary wars, largely forgotten now but bitterly fought at the time. The boundaries have long since been determined.

The Pittsburg border station, the only one in New Hampshire, is a quiet respite between the busy stations of Vermont and Maine. Officer Couture, cheerful and relaxed, greets me at the entry. “When people pass through here, where are they going?” I ask.

“There isn’t much up there,” he replies. “Mostly loggers come through.”

As I leave, I pull over to the side of the road. I wait with the windows down for about half an hour. No cars, no trucks, nothing. The road is empty, silent but for the chattering of the birds and the soughing of the pines.

I spend that night at The Glen, a venerable sporting lodge and a staple of Pittsburg’s economy since the 1950s. Owner Betty Falton, now in her eighties, sits, registering guests, at her big wooden desk, a set of moose horns screwed to the log wall beside her. She says she hasn’t noticed much difference at the border, “except the passport. I try to remember to tell guests to bring their passports.” Currently, travelers may present a birth certificate and government-issued photo ID at border crossings, but come June 1 this year, the new passport requirement (either book or card format) will go into effect. Yet even now, Falton says, “[a traveler] won’t reasonably get across the border without one.”

Falton adds that she wishes she could still hire Canadians to work for her, because she’s closer to Quebec than to Pittsburg. But there’s all the paperwork to fill out now before you can hire summer help, something she used to take for granted. “We love them and we want them,” she says, “but we’ll never get them, thank you very much, with a pile of papers this high.” She levels her palm about a foot off the surface of her desk.

The vastness of Maine becomes more apparent along its 611 miles of border, a jagged line through relentlessly dense woods, not much in the way of the modern world on either side. On the western edge, Coburn Gore and Jackman provide the only two 24/7 passages to Quebec. It’s a long drive just to get to either station, over roads nearly devoid of homes, gas stations, and convenience stores.

Both stations are used primarily by loggers coming and going between the two big woods. It’s the end of the day when I reach the little station in Jackman, stark in the midst of the forest. I’ve known about the $24 million station the government is building here, two massive structures rising out of the earth. The supervisor comes out to the sidewalk, where we talk as the sun sets behind our backs. He’s young and personable, but he’s sorry, he can’t tell me much about why all this is here.

We stand beside the smaller, older station. Few cars pass as we talk. Dust and debris blow up on the wind as construction workers hurry to finish their day. It seems fair to say that no building project of this scale has ever before taken place anywhere near these woods. I thank him and drive down a ways before stopping to take photographs of the construction. I have to stand in the middle of the road to do it, since I’m not allowed to take photos standing on government property. But I could stand here in the middle of this road for some time without threat.

Surely Estcourt Station, tucked into Maine’s northernmost tip, is where the saying “You can’t get there from here” was born. Always a lumbering community, it’s an American bite out of the Canadian town of Pohénégamook, Quebec. For the most part, the only reason anyone comes here is to buy gas. Gas in Estcourt Station, U.S.A., is about 40 cents a gallon cheaper than in Canada.

Phil Dumond has lived in Estcourt Station for 50 years, since he was 26, when he became a game warden for the state of Maine. He was sent here to keep Canadians from poaching U.S. wildlife. “I’m the only American up here,” he says. “There’s no way to get into the rest of Maine [from here] except through Canada.” An hour’s drive gets him to the next closest American town of any size, Fort Kent.

Until 9/11, this was a quaint curiosity, and reporters would occasionally find their way to Dumond’s humble abode to talk about his life in a town divided by the International Boundary. Several houses on his street are split down the middle. Some residents sleep with their heads in Canada and their feet in the U.S. Some eat supper in Canada and watch TV in the States. In his basement, Dumond has a stack of clippings from magazines like National Geographic and Time, where his picture has been printed. But once the new regulations took hold, his situation was no longer quaint. “I was a prisoner in my own home,” he says.

The border crosses the end of Dumond’s driveway. For years he has walked down his driveway, across a footbridge to the Canadian town’s main street, done his shopping or gone to church, and returned home. The footbridge, known locally as “Tobacco Road,” has been of interest for years. The store in Estcourt Station (which no longer exists) had a hot business selling American cigarettes to Canadians, as they were two or three times more expensive across the bridge. “I used to sit in a lawn chair at the end of my driveway,” Dumond recalls, “and it was like watching a whole bunch of Santa Clauses hopping across the bridge, big plastic bags filled with cigarettes slung over their shoulders.”

On 9/11, the U.S. government froze the border here, Dumond says. He had come and gone down his driveway and across that bridge for most of his life, but now he was no longer permitted to leave the country–that is, leave his driveway. The only way out was through the backwoods, rough roads all the way down to Allagash. “How could I get my prescriptions? How could I get groceries?” he says. “What if I got sick and had to go to the hospital?”

For three weeks in the fall of 2001, Dumond says, he was in effect imprisoned in his home. “When I went to bed at night, my head would pound,” he remembers. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.” He wrote to Senator Susan Collins for help, and eventually he was allowed to come and go, now with thumbprint identification and communication with the customs people in Fort Kent. At the foot of his driveway, sensors and large cameras are strapped to a telephone pole to record any activity on the border. He tells me that the United States has spent a million dollars putting up these devices in this speck of a place.

I ask Dumond whether the boundary could be moved. “No,” he replies, “that would create an international problem.” It would be easier to move him. He once owned a house in Fort Kent and always thought he would retire there when the time came. But he sold the house a few years ago. He loves where he is. “You put a bird in a cage so he won’t leave,” he says, “and then one day, you open the cage and he’ll fly out, but he’ll fly back in. He gets so he’s used to it.”

Most of the border crossings in Maine are on the state’s eastern edge, between New Brunswick and Aroostook County, a place where “potatoes, pine and people” are touted as the biggest resources. For years, the border between Maine and New Brunswick was in dispute, a tug of war between Great Britain and the United States. Maybe so, but it’s the French who dominate here. Guy Dubay has an Acadian museum by the roadside, just outside Madawaska, to prove the point: “We were here in the St. John Valley 60 years before internationalists decided our nationality.”

Dubay’s passion is the Acadian culture that permeates this region, both sides of the river, country of origin be damned. With his finger on a map, he patiently traces the migration of these pioneers who came to what is now Nova Scotia from France in the 1600s and then were deported by the British in 1755. Many settled in Maine. The line is there, but in their minds it’s all one place.

Dubay likes a good French-inspired meal, which he finds more to his taste across the river. But the traffic crossing the bridge is often slow now, and there’s the business of the documents he must present. “It’s too much bother,” he decides.

As the adage would go, this kind of bureaucratic red tape never stops those who want to engage in illegal activity. Last year, wheelchair-bound Michael Pelletier, a local man from Madawaska and St. David, was sentenced to life in prison for operating a multimillion-dollar drug-smuggling operation, paying swimmers to paddle thousands of pounds of marijuana across the St. John River from Canada into Maine. The 56-year-old Pelletier, who’d lost both legs in a farm accident as a young boy, had been operating the drug run since the early 1990s.

“Our information was that they had been doing it on a fairly regular basis,” explains Mark Albert (pronounced “al-bare“), Border Patrol Agent in Charge at the Van Buren station, a facility so new that on the day of my visit, workmen are just setting shrubs into the bare earth outside the entry. Albert was born in Quebec, grew up in Madawaska, and now lives in Fort Kent. We’re talking about the logistics of swimming that much marijuana across the relatively narrow river. It was reported that the swimmers were bringing 60 pounds on their backs at once. “Well, they had to have some kind of flotation device, I would think,” Albert says. “We unfortunately didn’t make those apprehensions.”

Albert’s territory covers 162 miles of the border, from Van Buren, Maine, to St-Pamphile, Quebec, on the western edge. “There’s been smuggling across this river ever since there’ve been two countries,” he tells me. “And they’ve smuggled everything you can think of–liquor, cows, you name it. I had an uncle once who used to store margarine in his barn and then shoot it over the border. It all depends on what’s in demand at what time. Sometimes they would just take it down to the riverbanks and leave it there, and the Canadians would come along on a snowmobile or in a boat and pick it up. This has gone on since time began.” But it’s not about these things so much anymore. “Terrorism is our first priority,” he says.

On the map, you can see all the roads in this region that once passed back and forth into Canada. Since 9/11, they’re all blockaded. Many miles south of Van Buren, I follow one road at random and, to my surprise, at the end is an old customs station, with its Depression-era architecture, a brick building with a covered porch where cars would drive in for questioning. The cement slab is still there in front of the door, but grass grows to its edge now, and wicker chairs have been set out under the porch. Beyond the house an iron gate blocks the road, which ends there, and large signs warn travelers to go no farther.

There’s no answer at the door when I knock, but the grass has been freshly cut. I hear a mower in the distance. Soon a man on a riding mower heads in my direction. He turns off the engine and greets me. He lives in the farmhouse next door to the old station. All this land, he gestures, swiveling in his tractor seat, pointing north, east, south, and west, and deeply into Canada, once belonged to his wife’s family. They were potato farmers, and all around us, potato fields are blooming with the soft white blossoms that in this part of the world spell money.

He doesn’t want me to use his name, but he tells me about trucks that come up this road sometimes, usually at night, and at the gate they meet other trucks, from Canada. Goods are exchanged. He watches from his window. The Border Patrol has asked for his cooperation in letting them know when things happen. Cameras and sensors bristle up the telephone pole and on the gate, he tells me: “A big animal can’t cross the line without them knowing it.” Helicopters hover at least once a day, and agents park out in his field. “Before 9/11, you came and went as you pleased,” he says. “No one cared, no one cared!”

He and his family used to drive down the now-blocked-off road to fix the roofs on the farmhouses only a mile away. Now they travel long distances just to reach the other part of their farm. Yes, there have been many changes. “During Prohibition, they looked the other way,” he notes, “even when this station was open.” He speaks to me from behind sunglasses; he occasionally takes his ball cap off, smooths his white hair, and settles the cap back on his head. He tells me stories about friends who got lost, wandered across the border, and were arrested, had their cars impounded.

“Smuggling is old hat around here. Anything that’s better, one side or the other, people find a way to pass it over the border,” he says. “Or at least they always used to. Now it’s harder.”

Continuing south toward the Canadian towns of McAdam and St. Croix, I plan to cross over there into Vanceboro, Maine, in Washington County. When I reached McAdam, I see a sign for a picnic table. It’s a long way over dirt roads, but once I’m on the path, I follow it to the end, which turns out to be a big, broad lake called Spednic.

Picnic tables edge the water. I carry my lunch to a table. If I’d planned a picnic beside a wilderness lake, I couldn’t have had more beautiful weather for it. The sun is hot, the sky blue. Beside the table is a big boulder with trees growing on it, roots twining, searching the rock for nourishment.

My eyes travel to the top of the boulder. A small white obelisk–an International Boundary marker! I’ve studied the map so closely in search of the border and now here I am, sitting right on it. There isn’t another person in sight or sound. I get up from the table and walk to the water’s edge, crossing pleasurably from Canada into America, no passport required.

In Calais, Maine, about 30 miles farther south, I cross over to the larger city of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, a place that was popular for a while with busloads of American seniors, who found they could buy prescription drugs more cheaply in Canada. Large drugstore outlets were built in St. Stephen, a phenomenon that changed with the shift in currency rates.

Here, in many ways, the two countries acted as one. Not only did they birth each other’s babies, but police and fire departments worked jointly, and familiar faces were routinely waved through the border checks. In Calais, the bridge across leads directly onto St. Stephen’s main street, just as in the north, the bridge in Madawaska leads to the bigger city of Edmundston.

This shared border allowed these communities to coexist and to blend almost into one. Now, however, crossing the bridge has become a long wait in line and a nightmare of downtown traffic congestion as idling cars block commerce on the main streets.

Down in Eastport, Maine, the border is in the middle of the bay–a floating, changing, imaginary line that rises and falls with the tides, a line no one can reasonably point to. We surge through that line, wherever it is, as the barge-like ferry, pushed by a tugboat, delivers me and half a dozen other cars and passengers from Canada to a rough little landing on the far side of Eastport.

Eastport still bears the patina of an old seafaring city, not unlike Salem or Mystic, but smaller, less lavish. All streets slope down to the sea. It’s soothing to sit and watch the water, which I do one evening, from the deck of a reliable old spot in town called the Waco Diner. The deck is so close to the water it’s almost like being on a boat. The little houses on Campobello Island look close enough to touch, the channel a mere river between us. The waitress sets a big, hearty bowl of lobster stew in front of me, and as I taste its sweet goodness, I spy a dark figure as it rolls out of the water and then disappears. I see the fin: a dolphin. He wheels in and out in a rhythmic way, and I imagine he’s tracing the border with his nose.

After all the miles I’ve traveled, the border seems just that elusive. The management of that border seems even more mysterious. My picnic hamper has been searched often, and I’ve seen tables beside the customs stations loaded with confiscated fruits and vegetables. Had I wanted to, it seems I could have brought all kinds of contraband, from cigarettes to nuclear or biological weapons, across the border in my car’s various cavities. I didn’t need the cameras of 60 Minutes to wonder what might be inside that tractor trailer or tucked under the seats of that enormous RV. And, as I was often reminded, these stations are for the honest people. In the vast wilderness that divides these two countries, just about anything would be possible.

In the 1970s, Gerald Bull, a Canadian aerospace engineer, developed howitzers and “supergun” technologies for foreign governments, using a tunnel beneath the Vermont/Quebec border to test his weapons. Both the U.S. and Canadian governments helped Bull set up his company, known as Space Research Corporation. Who would have guessed such a thing would be hidden in the Vermont woods? Preposterous–as were the events of 9/11. We live in preposterous times.

Even so, the problem seems almost metaphysical. We’re not at war with Canada, and yet the possibility exists that someone or something with evil intent could pass this friendly border. How much are we willing to spend to combat this possibility? How much commerce between two countries of goodwill are we willing to lose? Even with all this increased security, are we really any safer?

The dragnets I encountered in this region have caught some drug traffickers and illegal aliens, but no terrorists thus far, and it seems unlikely that they’ll catch any but the most ill-informed. The friendship between Canada and the U.S. that was once so abundant now seems an anachronism. Although hundreds of people are arrested each day on America’s southern border, the agents I spoke with admitted that little happens up here. But acting on the possibility that one day something big might happen, our government, already so in debt, is putting up massive structures and has hired what seems like an army to patrol this sleepy border.

During Prohibition, farmers and bootleggers managed to manufacture and distribute enough moonshine to keep a lot of people happy, in spite of the efforts of the revenuers. Prohibition was repealed largely owing to the realization that its enforcement had fostered a profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol. Much the same could be said about our current drug laws. Now, a long list of things, from illegal aliens to biological weapons, justifies these huge stations and all these agents of the law. And yet tractor-trailerloads of marijuana were shipped through these stations as recently as 15 years ago before the guilty parties were arrested. Whatever else passed through, we’ll never know. On the northern border, it would never be feasible to build fences like those the government is erecting on the southern border. It’s a border that will never be contained.

The war on terror is based in large part on fear and the workings of the imagination. From where I sit on the deck of that restaurant, I see two men loading their lobster boat, using a small crane attached to the end of the wharf. In darkness, their red navigation lights disappear into the night as they burble away from the wharf. With the watery International Boundary so close and the impressions of the Border Patrol fresh in my mind, I make up a scenario that includes contraband stashed in the hold. I imagine how easy that could be. But perhaps all they’re doing is going out to set traps for the lobster that so sweetly flavors the meal I’ve just devoured, every delectable pink chunk of it.


SLIDE SHOW: Edie Clark’s Canadian border photos.

See also YANKEE CLASSIC, January 1984: US/Canadian Border Crossings

  • Yo boy, am I homesick now. After seven years in the White Mountains and a lot of trips west and east again, small adventures when I took off alone and drove up into Quebec, through the Eastern Townships and across Ontario to Michigan and back to NH, I felt so comfortable with traveling alone in Canada. I’d memorized many local landmarks in both provinces and knew where the nice places were to stop for coffee or a meal. Now, because my passport has expired, my easy zip across from Port Huron/Sarnia and through the southern Ontario peninsula will have to be a much longer and less relaxing trip around the Great Lakes and across. I hate it. I have a great deal of affection for my old route; I feel at home when reaching Derby Line. What a bummer. It is just so sad that our cultures have to clash in ways that most of us would rather not see happen. I consider myself a citizen of the world and Canadians as just some more of the distant cousins (and I do have a lot of ancestors who immigrated to Canada from Europe rather than the US).

    And to Andy Grossman: Yep; I made the mistake of asking an Ontario Provincial police officer stationed in Coaticook (in English) if he spoke English, because I knew my French was too limited to ask for the information that I needed. Stiff as a ramrod he inquired in French if I spoke French. (I’d forgotten about the Francophone/Anglaisphone(sic) contention and it’s passionate division of the population.
    I replied with a pitiful attempt to convince him in his language that, “Ma Francais is tree petite and tres mal.” (Sorry, best I could do!) I was completely convinced and immediately inquired in flawless and professional English, “How may I help you?” Oh for the day when people are just people.

  • I have been at the Derby Line/Rock Island border a half dozen times over the past 45 years; the freezing of the border in recent years is a great pity. Some years ago I researched border issues and was told that US Customs tries to buy up and demolish houses that straddle the border. One hopes that the Haskell Free Library will avoid that fate. Another anomaly I was told about was that — at least in the days before the “Carte soleil” [Quebec health insurance scheme ID card] — the clinic in Newport VT was the closest maternity facility and many Quebeckers from the area were born there, thus being dual nationals. Then there were those families in houses straddling the border who had to make Grandma sleep on one side or the other to get SSI (from Social Security) or Canadian Old Age Security, each of which has a residence qualification. Finally there was the matter of the Quebec sovereignty movement, and the “francisation” program that preceded it — linguistically separating Quebec from “the other”. My company, a (tiny) Quebec corporation, had to change its name into French even though it did no business in that province and its name became unpronounceable except to somebody who is bilingual and logical nonsense in either language. For what it’s worth I always get a bigger smile from the Canadian border police when I speak to them in French; the identity crisis will not go away.

  • Your article was both interesting and sad. I’m 61 and have travelled back and forth to Prince Edward Island and the Maritimes since I was born. My Mom was born on a farm in P.E.I. and I have loved visiting our “Home from Away”. It is such a sad commentary on our society in general that we now fear everything and everyone. After 9/11 our government overreacted as they usually do and brought fear and uncertainty instead of calm and thoughtful actions to deal with the tragedy of 9/11. Our age of innocence is gone forever.

  • EastportMaine was settled in 1780, incorporated in 1798. It was seized by the British in 1814 but in 1818 was returned to the United States through the Treaty of Ghent. Fort Sullivan at Eastport, built in 1810, had a meteoric life – only four years later, on July 11,1814 when a British fleet of a dozen warships of 200 guns with troop transports hove into sight, the fort?s six officers and 80 men surrendered upon demand.

  • the Border creates more problems than it solves. it needs to be done with.

  • This was a very thought provoking article. This is only my opinion,but to me the worst tragedy since 9/11 is how society in general has changed. I am now 60 years of age and it just seems to me that we used to live in a world where people in general loved and cared for one another. Now,it is more of a ‘me first’ attitude on the part of many people. You can say hello to someone and they will drop their head and act as if you are not even there. I have gone different places and someone will go ahead of you through a door and not hold it for you. Isn’t it sad? The article about the New England – Canada border only magnifies how the society that we live in has drastically changed. The one thing that I take comfort in knowing is that in time,goodness always triumphs over evil.

  • Thank you for an intriguing story. I had never really thought about the issues connected to our border with Canada. Some of the things Edie Clark encountered highlight the mystery . On a topic unrelated to the story, I can’t imagine living in such a remote area. This story gave me a lot to think about.


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