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United States/Canada Border

United States/Canada Border
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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.

Until 9/11, this was a quaint curiosity, and reporters would occasionally find their way to Dumond’s humble abode to talk about his life in a town divided by the International Boundary. Several houses on his street are split down the middle. Some residents sleep with their heads in Canada and their feet in the U.S. Some eat supper in Canada and watch TV in the States. In his basement, Dumond 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, his situation was no longer quaint. “I was a prisoner in my own home,” he says.

The border crosses the end of Dumond’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, known locally as “Tobacco Road,” has been of interest for years. 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,” Dumond recalls, “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.”

On 9/11, the U.S. government froze the border here, Dumond says. He had come and gone down his driveway and across that bridge for most of his life, but now he was no longer permitted to leave the country–that is, leave his driveway. The only way out was through the backwoods, rough roads all the way down to Allagash. “How could I get my prescriptions? How could I get groceries?” he says. “What if I got sick and had to go to the hospital?”

For three weeks in the fall of 2001, Dumond says, he was in effect imprisoned in his home. “When I went to bed at night, my head would pound,” he remembers. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.” He wrote to Senator Susan Collins for help, and eventually he was allowed to come and go, now with thumbprint identification and communication with the customs people in Fort Kent. At the foot of his driveway, sensors and large cameras are strapped to a telephone pole to record any activity on the border. He tells me that the United States has spent a million dollars putting up these devices in this speck of a place.

I ask Dumond whether the boundary could be moved. “No,” he replies, “that would create an international problem.” It would be easier to move him. He once 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 where he is. “You put a bird in a cage so he won’t leave,” he says, “and then one day, you open the cage and he’ll fly out, but he’ll fly back in. He gets so he’s used to it.”

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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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