Along the Border
Along the Border
For Yankee Magazine
It’s not possible to travel the border between Canada and New England. There are no roads that follow the line. Instead, you have to traverse it, back and forth, in and out of Canada, a rough stitch that has pulled the two countries together since before either of them were nations. But that line, as it traces its way around the edge of this vast place called New England, is well worth following.
When I first set forth, I had not known what to expect. I knew there had been some ruffled feathers, especially among Vermonters, concerning the post-9-11 regulations requiring them to have passports before crossing over into Canada, or, more importantly, before returning. The economy in these states has suffered as a result. Canadians had always enjoyed coming down for vacation or just for dinner. The paperwork involved in coming here had become onerous. As well, there had been incidents, a young Canadian jailed for three months for not reporting in to the customs house before buying gas at a U.S. gas station. Drug rings had been busted. No terrorists or biological weapons had been found but these were the justifications for the enormous expansion of vigilance up on the border, where big new customs stations are being built at great expense. So many new border patrol agents have been brought up from the Mexican border and stationed in the north, I sometimes had trouble finding a room at a motel. Many rooms were occupied by agents there for short term or until they found a permanent home. I also knew there are places half in America, half in Canada, divided by an invisible line. So this is the story of that line, a line that until recently was hardly noticed, a line that was sometimes referred to as “the friendliest border in the world.” Borders are a division between two territories, two different places, boundaries over which wars are sometimes fought. Most of what I will tell you is not about these two countries but rather it is about our own, at war with an elusive thing called terror, not a country but a state of mind, a very expensive state of mind.
When you cross into Canada, the polite but straight-faced officers ask where you are from, where you are going and request to see your passport, which he (or occasionally she) will swipe into their system before waving you on. Highgate Center passes into Phillipsburg, Quebec. I stopped at the station, an old-fashioned building designed like a drive-through. The agent was an older man who sharply resembled a French gendarme, complete with a stiff, flat-topped, visored hat. “Bonjour,” he greeted me from behind a glass window that he had slid open. I felt perhaps I should place an order. Instead, I told him of my mission and he said, “Oh, please do come in. I want to show you something.”
The interior of the station and everything in it could have been 1930. He gestured for me to sit at a big wooden table near to where he had been sitting to greet those entering his country. He went into the back room and returned shortly with a photograph. His English was not very good. He pointed out the window to a white obelisk, the marker I would become very familiar with by journey’s end. “See that marker?” The photograph he showed me was of a store, which he told me once stood in front of the marker. “Look,” he said, “the store is half in Canada and half in the United States. It could not be there now,” he said, explaining as best he could that the store had been torn down. “But,” he said, “you like history! Go to the museum in Stanbridge East, this will tell you everything you want to know about the border. Go. It is a good place.” He was Michele, he said, like Michael.
Once I left the station, the high terrain of Vermont vanished in my rearview mirror and was immediately replaced by a flat world, stretching far into the distance, the road like a straight line in front of me and on all sides oats and hay fields flourished. I understood that the sudden change in the terrain was from a glacier that ironed out what is known as the Canadian Shield, which explains the table-like land and the lush farms here. The shield pushed up against what would become the boundary to what is now the rumpled, up-and-down landscape of Vermont.
In the museum, which turned out to be in an old mill beside a stream, I learned about the Fenians, a band of Irish rebels who had fought in the U.S. Civil War and, when the war ended headed north with the idea of taking over Canada, which was then still very much a part of the British empire. Their idea was to take Canada hostage and then agree to give Canada back to Britain if Britain would withdraw from Ireland, leaving the Irish free to rule themselves. The Fenians were beaten back by a band of angry farmers who tore up the railroad bed to stop them. By 1871, the Irishmen were gone.
More successful, more forceful were the Loyalists, who came earlier, New England farmers who had fought for King George during the Revolution and who had since suffered the consequences. After the war ended, they were living in refugee camps along the border. For them, the war had not ended and so, slightly after the War of 1812, a large stone fortress was built in the narrows at the top of Lake Champlain, near where I had just crossed from Rouse’s Point, New York, to prevent the Loyalists from coming down the lake and invading the United States.
This is one of Howard Frank Mosher’s favorite stories. I took a detour to visit him at his home in Irasburg, Vermont, where the well-known novelist was just putting the finishing touches on a new novel. “They called it Fort Montgomery when they built it. It’s well built. With those cannon portals looking right out on the narrows, you would have been hard pressed to get by them. The only trouble was, by mistake the Americans built it in Canada!” Howard laughs heartily at this historical accident. “A few hundred yards over the line. It was a great fort. It just wasn’t in the right country, that’s all! It has been known for a hundred years as Fort Blunder.”
Mosher has a fascination for the border and has written all of his novels right here, in this high-ceilinged Victorian farmhouse just off the Irasburg green. His current book, On Kingdom Mountain, has just come out in paperback. He gives me a summary. “In this book the heroine owns a mountain right on the border. The story is set in 1930. She’s part Indian and she claims the border wasn’t there when her ancestors first came and so far as she is concerned it has no significance. In the story, some local businessmen try to push a highway up through her mountain to the Canadian border and they are hoping to shove her off the mountain in the process. At one point she takes four or five of the obelisks from their places down to Lake Memphramagog and uses them to weight down her ice fishing shack.
And of course there is lots of whiskey smuggling going on. The town sheriff and the local doctor use the back roads on her mountain to go back and forth to Canada for their whiskey.”
Howard, who, in the early 1990s, traveled the entire northern border by car, from Eastport to Vancouver, and written the book to prove it (North Country, Houghton Mifflin, 1997), finds the old stories of bootlegging and smuggling amusing and fascinating. He regards these activities as hardcore Vermont-isms. His first landlady in Vermont lived through the hard times of the Depression by making moonshine. Once, she was hard at work over the still when she looked down and saw a “pair of city shoes.” She knew by the shoes a revenuer was standing beside her and she pleaded with him, “you can arrest me but if you do, we’re going to lose our farm.” The man left but he returned years later, after her husband died. She asked, “Are you here to arrest me again?” “No,” he said, “I’m here to marry you.” Howard laughs, even having told this story so many times before, and then he sobers a little: “Yea, those days are gone. There is an unpleasant air around that border now and I don’t enjoy crossing anymore. It’s gone too far.”
I had read that a $26 million customs station had been built recently in the tiny town of North Troy, Vermont, not far from Howard’s house. I would be heading there after leaving Howard’s house. “It looks like a fortress, oh, yes, out in the middle of nowhere. That seemed like a waste of money to me.”
From a distance it looked like an alien building, dropped onto this wooded, green, wilderness of a planet from outer space. It was like a fortress, with winged roof and huge letters that spelled out UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, which seemed like an announcement to the moose who might wander by. I pulled into the station. Some years ago, back in the late 90s, there was a company in North Troy owned by a man named (add here about Space Research). I wondered if the idea to build this station here was in any way connected to that strange story. Even if it were, this was a customs station, a place where the honest people pass through. Anyone up to such a preposterous scheme would avoid this station like bird flu.
I could only speculate. No one was going to tell me the real reason why this station was built here, in this isolated place.
Several agents were milling about inside and one came out to speak to me. The traffic coming through was light. These agents are military in appearance, complete with combat boots and weapons on the belt. As I was now accustomed, he asked me to turn off the engine and put the car into park. He then asked me where I was going, where I had come from and where I lived. I told him I was doing a story about the border. He asked for my passport and studied it. He then asked me to open my trunk where I had my suitcase, laptop, briefcase and picnic hamper. He didn’t bother with any of my luggage but he burrowed into the hamper like a gopher in a hole. He emerged, looking somewhat triumphant, with a big fresh lemon I had brought with me from home. A lemon can improve a lot of things. He held it up almost delicately, as if it were an Easter egg. It was indeed a fine lemon and it looked even finer, the way he was holding it. “Can’t let you get by with this,” he said. “Matterafact, I just want to reassure you that I’m not going to take this home.” And he stepped to the garbage can beside the station, lifted the lid rather dramatically and dropped it in, closing it with a clash. This vigilance for fruits and vegetables, which I found prevalent, was about pests and worms and bugs that might hitchhike in with the fruits. I understood. Sort of.
In Derby Line, the streets are edged with big shade trees and the houses are grand examples of the Gilded Age. The town green may be the largest I have ever seen, complete with a baseball diamond. On the day that I visited, there was a yard sale just off the green. Three white-haired ladies sat in lawn chairs, presiding over their goods for sale. They liked to talk. Many years ago they all went to the one-room schoolhouse here in Derby together. And then time and circumstance separated them. Now they are back together in the big house behind them, a place where old folks can come to live with each other. On the day that I stopped, they were all abuzz about the raid that had taken place the day before. “They went right down that street,” one of them said, pointing down a side street. Four men had been arrested for trafficking 2,205 pounds of marijuana across the border. According to the paper, the police had been watching these men since the early 90s. They had started by backpacking small loads across the border and now they “brought over loads in tractor trailers.” The ladies knew most of the men who had been arrested, who, they said, lived in Derby and took part in the community. “He was a good-looking man, lived in a beautiful home, has a nice wife and kids. We were always told it was his wife who had the money.” It was probably an old story in Derby Line – the main road that goes up into Canada is called, locally, Smugglers Road, and these ornate homes, such as the one where these ladies lived, were mostly built from the riches reaped by smuggling whiskey and other commodities. Or so it is said. There was never a big industry in Derby Line, nothing to explain the beauty of its main street.
In that context, I asked the ladies if these crimes were much different from whiskey running.
“No, not really!” they chorused. “Didn’t hurt us, what they were doing.”
I asked them if anyone had ever written a history of Derby Line. No, they couldn’t think of one but they told me that the town of Holland, just next door, had a good book that the historical society had put out a few years ago. They urged me to go to Holland. “You’ll love it,” they said.
The book that I purchased from the Holland town clerk did not have an explanation for the town’s name but my guess is that it is named after the country, where the fields are fertile and flat and beautiful. Holland, Vermont, is a wide plain of farms and fields, stretching out in all directions like paradise. The days I spent in Holland the sky was blue and studded with puffy white clouds which did nothing to tarnish that utopian image. I asked the town clerk, Dianne Judd, if there was a crossing in Holland. “Well, no legal crossing,” she replied. “But we have plenty of activity. There was an arrest just last week and in the winter they cross on snowmobiles.”
She told me there are fifteen farms in Holland, a goodly number for a town of less than 500 residents. “One family came here from Switzerland some years ago. We send a tax bill to Switzerland every year! Yup, we Google-earthed them and there they were!” she said, delighted to be part of the shrinking planet.
I went off from the town offices to explore the town. Like many towns in the Northeast Kingdom, most of the roads are dirt. But, unlike most of these other towns, down these roads, I found some rather expensive looking houses, not farms, just homes. I drove down one these roads and came to several abandoned farms. One, up on a high hill with open fields all around it, was particularly alluring. The view of Holland and the hills beyond was breathtaking. I got out and walked over to the house, an old farmhouse that seemed to have been partially renovated. But it didn’t look as if anyone had been there in a long time. Still, the lawn was neatly trimmed and the wide fields all around had been freshly mowed. Behind the house was the telltale obelisk. There was a grassy road, of sorts, that went off into the woods, blocked by a big gate that sported a STOP sign and large signs that warned not to proceed any further. Even so, that road was mowed all the way into Canada.
I drove back down the road and stopped at a house where a woman with henna hair was sweeping her front steps. I asked her about the farm at the end of the road, was it for sale? “I don’t know who owns that house,” she says. “I’ve lived here eleven years and I’ve never seen him.”
The day after, I went to see Fernando Beltran, Patrol Agent in Charge, at the Newport Border Patrol Station, a nondescript, practically unmarked brick building on Citizen Road in Newport, Vermont, just over the line from Derby. Fernando is the Patrol Agent in Charge of 32 miles of border of the Vermont border. Most every border patrol agent I spoke with felt the need to differentiate themselves from the customs agents who check people at the ports of entry. “There is the port entry and then there is everything in between. It’s everything in between that we take care of,” he tells me. The “everything in between” would include places like the abandoned farm I had seen in Holland. “We have sensors,” he said, “we know you are there.”
Fernando, dressed in what look like military fatigues, combat boots, and a plebe-style cap, is charming, welcoming, easy to talk to. His speech is tainted with a slight Mexican accent. But Fernando doesn’t want to talk much about what he does for Border Patrol. He can’t answer a lot of my questions as it might compromise the nature of their work, to reveal where and how they work, how many of them there are. Instead he tells me about himself. The son of migrant farm workers, Fernando grew up on farms across the country. “I started working in the fields with my parents when I was seven. I was born in Oregon. We were there picking pears. We went where the work was, Minnesota, wherever.”
I expressed surprise that someone with such a background would end up in life as a border patrol agent. “My story is not unique,” he says. “There are a lot of agents who were migrant farm 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. I remember they arrested a lady I knew. My mom was illegal but she was never arrested. They would try to talk to her and she would just say, “Hello meester,” no matter what he asked. “
Like many of the agents that I met, Fernando came up to Vermont from the southern border. In fact, whether or not they actually come from down there, all agents are required to put in five years of service on the southwest border before they can transfer to the north.
Fernando lives now in an 1840s Vermont farmhouse with forty acres all around him. He shows me a photograph of the house on his computer. He sends his children to St. Johnsbury Academy and is involved with the community. He loves living up here. He does, however, keep a bottle of hot sauce on his desk. “I like it spicy,” he says.
While he won’t tell me how many agents there are working in his sector, he does allow that where he was stationed in Texas, there were 600 agents patrolling the one town. “It’s a lot busier down there,” he says. “I always get the question, Are there that many Canadians trying to come in? You know, well, on the southern border, at dusk, you just see these people, coming toward the fences, and when you see them, you know they are 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 a hard job and it’s not any less dangerous. We don’t have the volume of apprehensions but we can’t be wrong once.”
I mention to him the feeling of annoyance among some old-time Vermonters who aren’t used to being interrogated so closely. He says, “A man brought me an issue of Vermont Life from 1964. It had an article in there about the border and how easy it was, 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 decided to cross into Canada for dinner in Stanstead, Derby Line’s counterpart. As I drove across the line, I noticed that someone had planted a beautiful flower garden in a circle around the international marker. I pulled over and got out to take a photograph. When I turned around, I saw out of the corner of my eye a customs agent gesturing furiously at me. “Come!” he shouted. “Come!” When I reached the customs house, he admonished me in stern tones: “You could be arrested! Don’t you know?” His words were inflected with heavy French tones. I asked him why. “Because you have not checked in and you are out of your car wandering around!” He was a Canadian customs agent, wearing a bullet-proof vest. I explained I had wanted to photograph the marker. “You are not allowed to do that. You are not allowed to get out of your car!” “Why isn’t there a sign?” I asked but he had no explanation and, after abruptly checking my passport, waved me through with a clear show of impatience.
I ate dinner that night at the old customs house, within sight of the man who had nearly arrested me. The old customs house has been a restaurant for years and I remember once years ago going there for lunch with Howard Mosher. We ate sandwiches and chips while he told me bootlegging stories. The outlaw past was all around me. Inside there are some stories on the walls, like this one: Beebe Plain (a part of both Stanstead and Derby Line) was founded by Seba Beebe, a Connecticut native and veteran of the Revolutionary War. Beebe was convicted in Vermont of counterfeiting. His sentence, typical of the time, was to have his right ear cut off and his forehead branded with a “C.” He also had to pay a fine and court costs. Turning over a new leaf, Seba immigrated to Canada in 1798 and founded the town of Beebe Plain.
The impressive bank building next door to the old customs house was designed to look like a Greek temple. Built in 1904 of yellow brick, the front of the building is held up by massive granite pillars. The old money house is now a bar, the Rock Island Bar and Casino. I’m sure Howard has embraced that irony in one of his novels.
The library in Derby Line is perhaps the most famous landmark along this 759-mile New England boundary. The international boundary cuts right through the middle of the building. Lest you think that was a mistake, it was, in fact, on purpose. The Haskell Free Library and Opera House was a gift from Mrs. Martha Stewart Haskell and her son, Homer Stewart Haskell, a memorial to her husband, Carlos F. Haskell, to the “boundary villages of Derby Line, Rock Island and Stanstead.” Mrs. Haskell was Canadian and her husband was American, hence the dual allegiance. Her library was a gesture of friendship between the two countries. The cornerstone was laid in 1901 and the building was constructed, deliberately, of granite (U.S.) and yellow bricks (Canadian). The interior is elegant, like the home of a wealthy merchant, with intricate woodwork , marble floors, tiled fireplaces with ornate mantels. The main library and desk are in United States, the reading room is in Canada. A line of blue tape runs diagonally through the building, a comical reminder of Mrs. Haskell’s charitable embrace of the two cultures. Now, patrons are warned not to exit on the Canadian side of the building if you are American, or, similarly, not to exit on the US side of the building if you are Canadian – if you do, you may be arrested.
In the morning, I stopped to get gas on my way to out of town. Fernando was leaning on a Vermont state cruiser, talking with a lady trooper. He waved to me across the parking lot and I went over for a chat. Earlier, he had told me that his wife calls him “neighborly” and I could see why. “I like to talk,” he had said. This time he tells me to go up to Shattuck Hill to the very top and take a picture of the view. “You’ll see the whole lake from there. Man, is that bee-autiful!”
And so I go, up to the top, where I see cloud shadows playing on the green hills all the way across Memphremagog and into Canada.
Lake Memphremagog (an Algonkian word that means, roughly, “where there is a big expanse of water) is one of the mythical entities of the Northeast Kingdom, a 32-mile-long glacial lake, about a quarter of which lies in Vermont, the rest in Canada. The lake is 350’ deep and it not only harbors the legend of a monster or sea serpent (Memphre) which has been sighted on and off since the 18th century, but smuggling lore galore. The tip end of the lake is surrounded by the city of Newport, Vermont, a busy little city that seemed to have an abundance of banks. I walked down to the waterfront, a small harbor and marina, on that summer day, an idyllic stretch of water that would set any mariner to longing. At the end of the dock a small café served burgers and such. There were tables and chairs near the water so I took a rest. I wondered where all the boats were. The water, which had the clear blue lucidity of a good lake, was tranquil, ruffled by a light breeze. But, in midsummer, it seemed almost eerily empty. A young couple, the girl with orange hair and the boy with various piercings, sat at the table beside me, waiting for their burgers. They were talking about having been stopped by Border Patrol so I inquired what had happened. They were here on a visit from Montreal, they told me, and they stopped to take a photograph of the big line painted on the road beside the library in Derby Line. The border patrol threatened to arrest them. “But why?” they asked. They were not given any answer.
I looked for the harbormaster. There was a little building on the dock with a phone on the outside wall. The sign instructed anyone who was coming in from Canada to call the Customs Agent from this phone. Inside the office had a desk and a chair but nothing that indicated anyone ever sat there. A burly fellow was emptying the trash barrel. I asked him where I might find the harbormaster. “That would be me,” he said. I asked where all the boats were. “Well,” he said, “these are international waters so it gets kind of messy. The waters are patrolled.” “So people don’t want to keep boats here?” I asked. He shrugged. I asked if there was any kind of harbor tour available. “Used to be,” he said. “But they don’t do that anymore.” I asked about the relaxed attitude of the customs station and he shrugged again. “It’s the only way,” he said.
The questions I am asked at the crossings don’t seem uniform. Most, though not all, ask where I am going and where I am from. One asks me where I got my car. Another asks how I paid for my rental car. Another, this one a Canadian who was dark and spoke with a West Indian accent, asked me if I was carrying more than $10,000 in cash. It almost seems as if it is linked to the mood of the man. In general, the Canadians are nicer, more friendly, but that does not always hold true. The one thing I can’t find is a rule of thumb in their questioning. Many focus on fruits and vegetables. If I were carrying biological weapons – a vial as small as my little finger could do untold damage – they don’t seem to take any measures to find something like that. The only thing they ever searched was my picnic basket. Maybe I don’t look like the type who would bring 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 passports from the customs agents and think about what could be concealed in a hollowed out log.
Mike Daley’s grandfather came here to Canaan from Lebanon in 19XX, pretty much off the boat from Ellis Island, where he landed in New York. “He came over on a cow boat, he was in with the cattle,” Mike says. He is standing in the back of his store in Canaan, New Hampshire, working as he talks. “Once he got to New York, he took a train as far north as he could, to Island Pond.” And then he started the store, Solomon’s Store, which has been there, on the border beside the Connecticut River selling groceries and shoes and ammunition and winter jackets and just about anything you can think of for the past XX years. Mike is the third generation to run it. His 86-year-old mother still helps. They all live nearby. Mike himself lives right on the border. While we talk, he is unpacking strawberries that have just come in on a truck from Canada. Mike was educated at the University of New Hampshire but returned to help his parents run the store. He is almost 50 now and show no signs of running out of gas on this enterprise. They also own the Laundromat and ??? “I love it,” he says, placing the trays of strawberries on his handcart while the provider stands by. “I love everything up here.” I ask him about the new regulations, how do they affect such things as strawberries coming in from Canada? “A little more paperwork but it’s no big deal, really.” He pauses for a moment. “I like it! We now have police up here. We never really had that before. It’s much safer now.”
On the map, the Vermont border is blade-straight. The border, visible in places, is open at times and sometimes scribes through water – not only Memphremegog but also Lake Champlain and Wallace Lake and a few streams. But once the boundary meets the Connecticut River, the western border of New Hampshire, the line begins to waver, like a meandering stream , up, up all the way to Pittsburg, that little Alaska where people feel removed enough from the government to take liberties. They have the history for that. Part of Pittsburg, a wedge of New Hampshire that lies between Nash Stream and Indian Stream, was, for some time, claimed by both United States and Canada. Annoyed by this, the settlers set up the Indian Stream, with allegiance to neither country. They’d be their own country. It was settled by treaty as United States territory in 1842 but there are those who, to this day, refuse to think of themselves as anything but Indian Stream. These were early boundary wars, largely forgotten but fought bitterly at the time. The boundaries have been settled long since.
The only border station in New Hampshire,the Pittsburg station is a quiet respite between the busy stations of Vermont and Maine. Officer Couture greets me at the border entry. He is cheerful and relaxed, unlike his Vermont counterparts. “When people pass through here, where are they going?” I ask. “There isn’t much up there,” he said. “Mostly loggers come through here.”
As I leave, I pull over to the side of the road and stop the car. I sit there with the windows down for about half an hour. No cars, no trucks, nothing. The road is empty, silent but for birds chattering and the soughing of the pines.
I spend that night at The Glen, a venerable sportsman’s lodge and lakeside cabins that has been a staple of the Pittsburg economy since the 1950s. Owner Betty, now in her eighties but still rugged, sits at her big wooden desk, registering guests and consulting with the staff. A big set of moose horns are screwed to the log wall beside her desk. I ask her about the changes at the border and she says she hasn’t really noticed much of a difference. “Oh, except the passport. I try to remember to tell the guests to bring their passports because they will not reasonably get across the border without it.” She goes on to say that she wishes she could still hire Canadians to work for her here. Because the Glen is closer to the border and Canada than it is to the town of Pittsburg. But there’s that border in between. And all the paperwork that she is required to fill out just to hire some summer help, which she used to take for granted. “We love them and we want them 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 drawn through relentlessly dense woods, not much in the way of the modern world on either side of the line. On the western edge, Coburn Gore and Jackman provide the only two passages through to Quebec. It is a long drive just to get to either station, roads devoid of homes, gas stations, convenience stores, certainly nothing bigger. Both stations are used primarily by loggers coming and going between the two big woods. Just arriving at these stations seems destination enough. Coburn Gore, surrounded by finger lakes, is a hidden paradise for sportsmen. The fellow at the tiny customs stations seems delighted to have someone come and engages me in conversation after his first two cursory questions. Yes, he says, it’s God’s country and off I go, toward Lake Megantic, a big beautiful stretch of water that stays on my left for what seems like hours, driveways leading to lake cottages marked with wooden signs bearing French names. Once at the town of Lac Megantic, I head east again, toward Jackman. It is the end of the day when I reach the little station in Jackman, stark in the midst of the woods. Since I had read about and been told about the station they were building in Jackman, I was not surprised to see the construction, on either side of the road, two massive structures rising out of the virgin earth. I stopped and asked to see the supervisor who came out to the sidewalk, where we talked as the sun set behind our backs. The tall young man was personable and told me that his great grandfather had once been written up in Yankee, back in the 1930s, but he could not tell me much, he was sorry, such as why they had selected Jackman for this enormous new station. It looked big enough so that when they were finished, they could house all of the prisoners from Guantanamo there. I did know that the station was slated to cost $24 million. That would be before cost overruns. We stood beside the smaller, older station. Few cars passed by as we talked. Dust and debris from the building process blew up on the wind as construction workers hurried to finish their day. It seems fair to say that no building project of this scale has ever taken place anywhere near this borderline location. I thanked the young man and drove down a ways before stopping to take photographs of the construction. I had to stand in the middle of the road to do that, since I was not allowed to take photographs standing on government property. But, I could have stood in the middle of that road for some time without threat.
Surely Estcourt Station is where the saying, “You can’t get there from here,” was born. 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 up there to keep Canadians from poaching U.S. wildlife. A fox in the henhouse. “I’m the only American up here,” he says. “There is no way to get into the state of Maine except through Canada.” An hour and a half through Canada to get to the closest American town, Fort Kent.
Until the events of 9-11, this was viewed as a curiosity and occasionally reporters would find their way to Phil’s back door and sit with him in his spartan living room (linoleum floor, wood stove, computers, ham radio, TV, phone with a rotary dial) and talk about the life up here, a town divided by the international boundary. Several houses on Phil’s street are divided by the line. Some residents sleep with their head in Canada and their feet in U.S. Some eat supper in Canada and watch television in the states. So quaint. In his basement, Phil 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, it was no longer quaint. “I was a prisoner in my own home.”
Estcourt Station, always a lumbering community, is an American bite out of the Canadian town of Pohanogoomook. For the most part, the only reason anyone goes there is to buy gas. Gas in Estcourt Station, U.S.A., is about forty cents a gallon cheaper there than it is in Canada.
The border is at the end of Phil’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 has been of interest for some years as it was known locally as Tobacco Road. 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 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.”
“The boundary was all a big mistake,” Phil says. “It was supposed to have been a straight line but the surveyors, half American and half Canadian, they got very drunk and got very lost and this is how it came out.”
That was a long time ago but shortly after 9-11, the borders were seized and frozen, by our own people, a new kind of occupation. Phil, who had come and gone down his driveway and across that bridge for most of his life, was no longer permitted to leave the country, that is to say, leave his driveway. The only way out was through his back woods, rough roads all the way to Allagash. “How could I get my prescriptions? How could I get groceries? What if I got sick and had to go to the hospital?” There was no mercy. For three weeks in the fall of 2001, Phil Dumond was imprisoned in his home. “When I went to bed at night, my head would pound. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
He wrote his Congresswoman, Susan Collins, for help and eventually a system was worked out that allowed him to come and go, still with some cumbersome bureaucracy involving thumbprint identification and communication with the customs people in Fort Kent. His Canadian neighbors come and go but he is restricted by this American surveillance. At the foot of his driveway sensors and large cameras are strapped to a telephone pole to record any activity on the border. Phil tells me that the United States has spent a million dollars, putting up these devices in this speck of a place. I ask him if the boundary could be moved.
“No, that would create an international problem.”
It would be easier to move him. He 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 it where he is. “You put a bird in a cage so he won’t leave, and then one day, you open the cage, he’ll fly out but he’ll fly back in. He gets so he’s used to it.”
The preponderance of border crossings in Maine are on the eastern edge, between New Brunswick and Aroostook County, a place of where “potatoes, pine and people” are touted as the biggest resources. For years, the border between Maine and New Brunswick was in dispute. The tug of war between Great Britain and the United States ended with the Treaty of 1842. Maybe so but it is the French who dominate here. Guy Dubay has an Acadian museum by the roadside just outside of Madawaska to prove that point. He quotes Robert Frost: “We were the land’s before the land was ours,” he says. “Those words apply to us in the St. John Valley. We were here 60 years before internationalists decided our nationality.” I had become accustomed to hearing his heavily accented French, as if Maurice Chevalier were talking to me. At times, I had to stop and think whether I was in U.S. or Canada – or even somewhere much further away. Mr. Dubay’s passion is the Acadian culture which permeates the valley, both sides of the river, country of origin be damned. He will spend time to teach the uninitiated, patiently tracing the migration of these pioneers who came first to Nova Scotia from France in the 1600s and were deported from Nova Scotia in 1755, in some cases to Maine. The line is there but in their minds, it is all one place. Mr. Dubay likes a good French inspired meal, which he finds more to his taste across the river. This should not be so much to ask. But the traffic crossing the bridge is often slow now and there is the business of the papers that need to be presented. “It is too much bother.”
As the adage would go, this kind of bureaucratic red tape never stopped those who want to engage in some illegal activity. Last year, wheelchair-bound Michael Pelletier, a local boy from Madawaska, was sentenced to life in prison for operating a multi-million dollar drug smuggling operation, paying swimmers to convey thousands of pounds of marijuana across the St. John River from Canada into Maine. The 52-year-old Pelletier, who 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.” Mark Albert is the Border Patrol Agent in Charge at the Van Buren station, a facility so new they were just setting shrubs into the bare earth outside the entry on the day of my visit. Mr. Albert (pronounced Al-bear) was born in Quebec, grew up in Madawaska and now lives in Fort Kent. He is built like a fox and moves like a coyote, his shock of white hair close-cropped. Nonetheless, Albert spent six years living in Catulo, Texas, like all the rest of the border patrol agents now serving on the northern border. A photograph behind his desk shows him wearing a ten-gallon hat, standing with other agents, most of whom appear to be Hispanic. We are 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 to St.Pamphile on the western edge. “There’s been smuggling across this river ever since there’s been two countries. And they have 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 is 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.”
And, of course, illegal immigrants are a big concern. On the southern border, he says, they catch hundreds and hundreds of people every day. “Not here,” he says. But still, it is not about these things anymore. It’s about terrorism. “Terrorism is our first priority,” he says. So far, nothing has been found. The new building is a good thing, however. The cost of this new facility was (tkmillion) and there is currently a motion requesting a new port of entry as the current building was damaged by recent floods. According to a letter written by Senators Olympia Snow and Susan Collins, 24,000 loads of cargo are processed annually through the port of entry between Van Buren and St. Leonard. If nothing else, the events following 9-11 have stimulated growth but, unfortunately, not for the diminished town of Van Buren, which receives nothing residual to all of this activity on the border.
Maine’s eastern border is a razor’s edge, straight as an arrow down to the sea. Midway down the edge, Mars Hill, a 1,660 foot vertical rise out of the flat valley, was claimed by the British as the northern border of Maine during tensions that led to the Aroostook War, fought between 1837 and 1838. Now, fastened to the near-peak of this long, steep hill, 22 wind turbines, soaring 400 feet above the hill, stand with their backs to Maine, their faces to New Brunswick. Residents complain of the noise made by the turning blades, each one of which is as long as a football field. The slow churn keeps them awake and penetrates their souls. To boot, the energy produced is for southern New England, maybe even for New Brunswick, not for local customers. The trauma of the construction needed to install the project was harsh. “Giant bulldozers and cranes took over our mountain. Roads three lanes wide were being cut through the trees. What a shock it was to all of us when they blasted away the whole end of the mountain,” Carol Cowperthwaite wrote in protest in the St. John Valley Times. On my way through, I drove up a long road that led to a golf course close to the line. I parked near the clubhouse, over which the turbines towered and listened to the turbines moan and shudder into a foggy morning.
In Calais, I crossed over to the larger city of St. Stephen, a place that, for a while, was popular with busloads of American seniors who had found they could buy prescription drugs cheaper in Canada. Large drug store outlets were built in St. Stephen, a phenomenon that has changed with the shift in currency rates. Here, in many places, the two countries have acted as one, not only did they birth each other’s babies but police and fire departments work jointly and familiar faces were routinely waved through the border checks. In Calais, the bridge across leads directly onto the main street of St. Stephen as does the bridge in Madawaska lead to the bigger city of Edmundston. These shared borders have allowed the towns to coexist and blend almost like one town. Now, however, crossing the bridge has become not only a long wait in line but a nightmare of traffic congestion in the downtowns as cars block commerce on the main streets, another reason why thorough checks cannot and probably will never be made through these border checks.
From St. Stephen, I traveled south toward the Canadian town of MacAdam, where I planned to cross over into Vanceboro, Maine. When I reached MacAdam, I saw a sign for a picnic table. It was near lunchtime so I followed the sign. It was a long way over long dirt roads but once I was on the path, I kept following to the end, which turned out to be a big, broad lake called Spednic. Picnic tables edged the water. I carried my lunch to the table and settled in for a welcome meal. If I had planned a picnic beside a wilderness lake, I could not have had more beautiful weather for it. The sun was hot, the sky blue. Beside the table was a big boulder with trees growing on it, roots twining, searching the rock for nourishment. My eyes traveled to the top of the boulder. A small white obelisk – an international boundary marker! I felt a wave of synchronicity as, in places, I had studied the map so closely in search of the border and now, here I was, sitting right on it. There wasn’t another person in sight or sound. I got up from the table and walked to the water’s edge, crossing so pleasurably from Canada into America, no passport required.
On the map, you can see all the roads that once passed back and forth into Canada. Since 9-11they are all blockaded off now. I followed one road at random and, to my surprise, at the end of the road was an old customs station, the unmistakable depression era architecture, the brick building with the covered porch where cars would drive in and be questioned. Over the port cachere was the identifying sign: Littleton. The cement slab was still there in front of the door, under the protection of the porch, but grass grew to its edge and wicker chairs were set out under the porch. Beyond the house an iron gate blocked the road, which ended there, and large signs warned the curious or the criminal to go no further. There was no answer at the door when I knocked but the grass had been freshly cut. I could hear a mower in the distance. Soon a man on a riding mower headed in my direction. He turned off his engine and greeted me. He lived in the farmhouse next door to the old station. All this land, he gestured, swiveling in his tractor seat, pointing north, east, south and west, and deeply into Canada, belonged to his wife’s family. Yes, they were potato farmers. All around us, potato fields were blooming with the soft white blossom that, in this part of the world, spells money. He did not want me to use his name but he told me about trucks that come up this road, sometimes, usually at night and, at the gate, they meet another truck from Canada, goods are exchanged. He watches this from his window. The Border Patrol has asked for his cooperation in letting them know when this happens. 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 Border Patrol Agents park out in his field. “Before 9-11, you came and went as you pleased. No one cared, no one cared!” He and his family would drive down the now-blocked off road to fix the roofs on the farmhouses just a mile away. Now they have to travel long distances to reach the other part of their farm. Yes, there have been many changes. “During Prohibition, they looked the other way, even when this station was open.”
This man, who grew up in Portland, has lived here at what is now the end of the road for 27 years. He speaks to me from behind sunglasses and he occasionally takes his ball cap off, smooths his white hair and settles the hat back on his head. He seems to want to talk. He tells me stories about friends who got lost, wandered across the border and were arrested, had their car impounded. His phone service has been discontinued so he can only use a cell phone. “Smuggling is old hat around here, anything that is 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 is harder.”
Because I wanted to take a ferry, a romantic notion, and because I wanted to end my trip in Eastport, I went first to Lubec, where the first port of entry carries visitors across a bridge to Campobello, famed as the summer home of President Franklin Roosevelt. It is much more than that, a relatively big island but the home-museum attracts tourists who would otherwise bypass this Canadian enclave, where residents come to Maine for most of their groceries and shopping needs. Otherwise the trips to New Brunswick involve two ferry rides, which are expensive and involve hours of travel and wait. But, nonetheless, it is Canada and to cross over now, which used to be nothing at all, is more complicated. The Roosevelt Campobello International Park, which encompasses the cottages and grounds where President Roosevelt vacationed all his life, including the years during which he was president, is not far from the Lubec bridge. The visitor center there is a busy place on a summer’s day. There is much emphasis here on the fact that Roosevelt, much like Mrs. Haskell in Derby Line, had deep affection for Canada and greatly valued the close ties between the two nations, especially during World War II.
Three miles wide and ten miles long, Campobello is a long finger pointing toward its homeland. At the information booth an older woman whose name tag identifies her as Janice tells me she was born and raised in Campobello and has worked here at the museum for 35 years. “Before there was a bridge, I took a dory over to have my kids in Lubec,” she says. “You really can’t get to Canada from here.”
No one can cross into the United States now in order to be born in an American hospital, no matter how inconvenient the circumstances may be. Previously, it was no big deal, when it was time to have a baby, you went wherever was closest and often that was in U.S. for Canadians and in Canada for Americans. Anyone born outside their own country enjoyed dual citizenhip as a result of a borderline birth. Neither country looks kindly upon this any longer. What would she do now, I ask. She laughs. “I don’t know! I guess I’d have to take a couple of ferries to New Brunswick and hope I made it!”
In Eastport, 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 surged through that line, wherever it was, as the barge-like ferry, pushed by a tugboat, delivered me and half a dozen other cars and passengers to a rough little boat landing on the far side of Eastport. Eastport was once prosperous. It 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 is soothing to sit and watch the water, which I did one evening, on the deck of a reliable old spot in town called the Waco Diner. The deck is so close to the water, it is almost like being on a boat. The waitress, a young girl on break from college, set a big hearty bowl of lobster stew in front of me and, as I tasted of its sweet goodness, I spied a dark wheel roll out of the water and disappear. I saw the fin: a dolphin. He wheeled in and out in a rhythmic way and I imagined the dolphin was tracing the border with his nose, stitching it as if with thread and needle.
I looked at the big schooner tied up so close to where I sat. It was a fine-looking vessel and the very sight of it evoked a time long before my memory. I imagined this deep harbor filled with wooden beauties just like it, bringing in supplies for this island town and then carrying out lumber and salt fish and sardines to other, distant places. Of course, there were opportunities for smuggling, it was always right there for them, the Canadian shore almost close enough to swim to. There has hardly been a time when smuggling one thing or another was not active, even in Revolutionary times and certainly today. I remember once talking with a man who lived just one town away. His house was on a cliff above the water and he recounted for me the experience of sometimes watching his neighbor bring in contraband, most likely illegal drugs, piloting his boat in close to the shore in darkness, the lights of his boat extinguished. He could sit in his living room and did not even need binoculars to watch this transpire. The man I was talking with lived in a modest old place and kept goats and sheep in the small fields that surrounded his house. His neighbor, who he said had come there from Massachusetts, had built a grand place that looked a bit like something you might see on Martha's Vineyard, a big mansion overlooking the sea. If he was smuggling drugs, it seems he was doing so successfully and without detection. I imagined he had purchased that piece of property for the possibilities that location presented to him. This conversation took place some years ago and if that man was ever caught, I don't know of it. Even if they built a wall like the one they have built on the Mexican border, it seems highly unlikely they could contain the variety of dangers they claim to be concerned with. From anthrax to citrus fruits to small vials of bioweapons, the chances seem pretty good these things could be brought across without detection. It wouldn’t matter how many men and buildings they might use to fortify the border.
That night, from my room beside the water, I saw two men loading their lobster boat, using the small crane that is attached to the end of the wharf. It seemed to me to be an odd hour to be going out, setting traps, at least that was my thought. In darkness, they burbled away from the wharf and their red navigation lights disappeared into the night. In all that I had seen, I wondered about the expensive border stations, the numbers of agents patrolling this tranquil northern border, the people I had met who had become hostages of the old line. With the watery international boundary so close and the impressions made by the presence of the border patrol, my mind made up a scenario that included a hold in their bow that contained contraband. I imagined how easy that could be. But perhaps all they were doing was going out to set traps for the lobster that so sweetly flavored the meal that I had just devoured, every delectable pink chunk of it.