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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.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

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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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