United States/Canada Border
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.