United States/Canada Border
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.”