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United States/Canada Border

United States/Canada Border
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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.”

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7 Responses to United States/Canada Border

  1. JANE A REEL April 5, 2009 at 7:37 am #

    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.

  2. Ronald Donett April 10, 2009 at 1:39 pm #

    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.

  3. chris hall April 15, 2009 at 11:14 am #

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

  4. Sandra Basgall April 26, 2009 at 3:19 pm #

    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.

  5. Jim Crosbie May 27, 2009 at 11:12 pm #

    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.

  6. Andy Grossman August 14, 2009 at 11:37 am #

    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.

  7. Naomi Bigelow December 21, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    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.

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