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Maine Author Explores The Changing American Border With Canada

For many in Maine, the border with Canada is an everyday fact of life. People cross the border for shopping, work or family.

But since September 11 — and, more recently, under the Trump administration — the border which used to be more porous is now hardened. For example, crossing is more formal. Stops within in the 100-mile "border zone" are increasing, and Trump administration policies have introduced a new friction into relationships between the two countries.

It was during this period of hardening that writer Porter Fox, himself a native of Maine's border region, embarked upon a trip along America's northern border, from Maine all the way to Washington state.

His new book, Northland: A 4,000-mile Journey Along America's Forgotten Border, documents that trip, and looks at how things have changed in the last couple of decades. He spoke with Nora Flaherty for Maine Things Considered.

Credit Sara Fox

PF: You know as somebody that worked at a restaurant in America and lived in Canada, and was sitting an hour-plus waits at ports of entry going both directions. I was late to work, you know up in the Northwoods in Maine. You know you've got lumber being cut on one side of the line, getting milled on the other side of the line, getting shipped and sold back on the original side. It's — there's just a tremendous amount of legal traffic that crosses the northern border and delays at the border increased, aggressive questioning, denials at the border. It all inhibits these cross-border communities and businesses that have been in the north country for hundreds of years.

Credit Sara Fox

NF: You yourself grew up in Maine and in Southwest Harbor near the Canadian border. How did that inform this project?

PF: You know it was just a fact of life growing up. There were Canadians all along the coastline. When I was growing up, and in the summers, we would go up north to a lake five miles from the border and hang out up there and up there you know the town was filled with sort of half-Canadian half-American. People didn't talk so much about the border back then because it was so porous, it was so easy to go across. You just had a driver's license and you could cross. Before 2001, half the border crossings on the northern border were not guarded at night. There were border check-ins that were voluntary. They called it the world's friendliest border, and for many years it was, and now all of a sudden it's sort of getting militarized and and hardening quite a bit.

NF: You say in your introduction much of the northern border is very beautiful, but it's really — it's not quaint. Areas along the border have the same kinds of problems as any other poor areas, as well as in some parts of the border, border-specific problems like human trafficking and drug trafficking. Is that something you really wanted to get across here?

PF: I did. I didn't want to harp on it but you know when we talk about Maine, we talk about beauty, and serenity and these great massive roadless areas of wilderness. And that's-that's the Maine that I grew up in and that I truly love. But there's also a lot of problems in the state, and many of those are in those northern towns and unorganized territories and whatnot; where the opioid crisis is terrible, where poverty is widespread. You know it's so different up there when you drive from a place like Kennebunkport or Bar Harbor or Portland. And you know, you kind of get up into the reaches of Washington County. It's a whole different world.

Credit Sara Fox

NF: What do you take away from the part of your journey where you were in your home state? Did you learn something new or was there one sort of dominant impression?

PF: You know I learned so much about not just border security there but about the history of this part of North America and what was there before the border. Being able to talk with Passamaquoddy tribe up around Eastport was -- really started a whole thread of the book about Native American communities that have been split in half by the border and face a tremendous number of problems because of that. So a lot of that started in Maine, and I got to carry it out as I cross the country.

NF: Porter Fox is the author of Northland. Thank you so much.

Originally published July 16, 2018 6:10 p.m.

Nora is originally from the Boston area but has lived in Chicago, Michigan, New York City and at the northern tip of New York state. Nora began working in public radio at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor and has been an on-air host, a reporter, a digital editor, a producer, and, when they let her, played records.