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United States/Canada Border

“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.

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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