United States/Canada Border
Most of the border crossings in Maine are on the state’s eastern edge, between New Brunswick and Aroostook County, a place where “potatoes, pine and people” are touted as the biggest resources. For years, the border between Maine and New Brunswick was in dispute, a tug of war between Great Britain and the United States. Maybe so, but it’s the French who dominate here. Guy Dubay has an Acadian museum by the roadside, just outside Madawaska, to prove the point: “We were here in the St. John Valley 60 years before internationalists decided our nationality.”
Dubay’s passion is the Acadian culture that permeates this region, both sides of the river, country of origin be damned. With his finger on a map, he patiently traces the migration of these pioneers who came to what is now Nova Scotia from France in the 1600s and then were deported by the British in 1755. Many settled in Maine. The line is there, but in their minds it’s all one place.
Dubay likes a good French-inspired meal, which he finds more to his taste across the river. But the traffic crossing the bridge is often slow now, and there’s the business of the documents he must present. “It’s too much bother,” he decides.
As the adage would go, this kind of bureaucratic red tape never stops those who want to engage in illegal activity. Last year, wheelchair-bound Michael Pelletier, a local man from Madawaska and St. David, was sentenced to life in prison for operating a multimillion-dollar drug-smuggling operation, paying swimmers to paddle thousands of pounds of marijuana across the St. John River from Canada into Maine. The 56-year-old Pelletier, who’d lost both legs in a farm accident as a young boy, had been operating the drug run since the early 1990s.
“Our information was that they had been doing it on a fairly regular basis,” explains Mark Albert (pronounced “al-bare“), Border Patrol Agent in Charge at the Van Buren station, a facility so new that on the day of my visit, workmen are just setting shrubs into the bare earth outside the entry. Albert was born in Quebec, grew up in Madawaska, and now lives in Fort Kent. We’re talking about the logistics of swimming that much marijuana across the relatively narrow river. It was reported that the swimmers were bringing 60 pounds on their backs at once. “Well, they had to have some kind of flotation device, I would think,” Albert says. “We unfortunately didn’t make those apprehensions.”
Albert’s territory covers 162 miles of the border, from Van Buren, Maine, to St-Pamphile, Quebec, on the western edge. “There’s been smuggling across this river ever since there’ve been two countries,” he tells me. “And they’ve smuggled everything you can think of–liquor, cows, you name it. I had an uncle once who used to store margarine in his barn and then shoot it over the border. It all depends on what’s in demand at what time. Sometimes they would just take it down to the riverbanks and leave it there, and the Canadians would come along on a snowmobile or in a boat and pick it up. This has gone on since time began.” But it’s not about these things so much anymore. “Terrorism is our first priority,” he says.
On the map, you can see all the roads in this region that once passed back and forth into Canada. Since 9/11, they’re all blockaded. Many miles south of Van Buren, I follow one road at random and, to my surprise, at the end is an old customs station, with its Depression-era architecture, a brick building with a covered porch where cars would drive in for questioning. The cement slab is still there in front of the door, but grass grows to its edge now, and wicker chairs have been set out under the porch. Beyond the house an iron gate blocks the road, which ends there, and large signs warn travelers to go no farther.
There’s no answer at the door when I knock, but the grass has been freshly cut. I hear a mower in the distance. Soon a man on a riding mower heads in my direction. He turns off the engine and greets me. He lives in the farmhouse next door to the old station. All this land, he gestures, swiveling in his tractor seat, pointing north, east, south, and west, and deeply into Canada, once belonged to his wife’s family. They were potato farmers, and all around us, potato fields are blooming with the soft white blossoms that in this part of the world spell money.
He doesn’t want me to use his name, but he tells me about trucks that come up this road sometimes, usually at night, and at the gate they meet other trucks, from Canada. Goods are exchanged. He watches from his window. The Border Patrol has asked for his cooperation in letting them know when things happen. Cameras and sensors bristle up the telephone pole and on the gate, he tells me: “A big animal can’t cross the line without them knowing it.” Helicopters hover at least once a day, and agents park out in his field. “Before 9/11, you came and went as you pleased,” he says. “No one cared, no one cared!”
He and his family used to drive down the now-blocked-off road to fix the roofs on the farmhouses only a mile away. Now they travel long distances just to reach the other part of their farm. Yes, there have been many changes. “During Prohibition, they looked the other way,” he notes, “even when this station was open.” He speaks to me from behind sunglasses; he occasionally takes his ball cap off, smooths his white hair, and settles the cap back on his head. He tells me stories about friends who got lost, wandered across the border, and were arrested, had their cars impounded.