Porter Fox vividly conveys the beauty of a remote, lightly touched place in this account of his journey from the coast of Maine to Blaine’s Peace Arch Park.
Porter Fox knew he would travel alone for most of his journey along the border between the U.S. and Canada, but not quite how alone. The author of “Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border” (Norton, $26.95), Fox learned that along vast stretches of the border, “there’s simply nobody around. There’s no cell service, no GPS. For days and days and days, I had no idea where I was.”
The U.S.-Canada border is vital to trade and relations between both countries, but its borderland remains a lonesome place. For many people, that’s a virtue — it’s home to resourceful people who’ve learned to survive in a land of extreme weather and extreme solitude. It’s sheltered ethnic communities who put down roots in the 19th century and never left. It’s the final redoubt for American Indian tribes who were pushed up to the border after their land was stolen. And it’s a sort of no-man’s-land for smugglers taking advantage of the border’s porous nature.
Fox’s account of his journey (by foot, canoe, freighter and car) starts off the coast of Maine and ends at Blaine’s Peace Arch Park, looking out over Boundary Bay. Along the way he explores issues of water rights, climate change, native sovereignty and the perils and pleasures of living along the border. He vividly conveys the beauty of a remote, lightly touched place. Fox appears at Elliott Bay Book Co. on Thursday, Sept. 27. Here are some observations about his trip, edited for concision and clarity:
Q: Why did you call your book “Northland,” and where did that term come from?
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A: As you drive across the country you see the term all over the place. The technical term is the northern tier, others call it the Highline. There’s not a name for it because nobody ever talks about it. Our relationship with Canada has been terrific for so long, we stopped thinking about it.
Q. You talk about the northland as a place of “ethnic archipelagoes” and a last refuge for American Indian tribes. How did those groups wind up there?
A: Back east, when the French were expelled from New England, pockets of French settlers held out, taking over river valleys and harbors. That created a very strong identity. When you look through the rest of America, immigrants were itinerant, but in the northland, people tended to settle down, such as the strong Scandinavian population. For Native Americans, it was their last resort. From Maine to Montana, they were pushed together and slammed up against the border.
Q: On your trip, were you aware of being monitored or under surveillance?
A: I did not see any border agents outside a port of entry. I barely saw them at all. The CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) really depends on these small towns to call in about any strangers — that “grapevine security” is really important to the CBP right now. They get images of armed people crossing the border, but they just can’t get there in time. That’s a little alarming. That’s something more agents, more cameras and some technological help could fix pretty easily.
Q: How does insufficient monitoring hurt people on both sides of the border?
A: The southern border gets all the headlines, politicians ranting about it, the proposed ridiculous border wall. The southern border is half as long as the northern border. There are about 18,000 agents down there, while there are about 2,000 agents on the northern border.
We’re bordering a nation that’s one of our oldest allies, and our number two trading partner, but Canada has fairly lax immigration laws. No visa is required for a Mexican citizen to go to Canada. You can fly to Toronto, be driven to the border and then walk across it. Smugglers can go straight across the border on an Indian reservation. Federal and state people have no authority, and the tribal authorities have no power to make an arrest.
Q: What are some realistic fixes?
A: I don’t think locking it down is the answer. $1.6 billion a day in goods and services and 400,000 people (crossing the border) makes it the busiest international border in the world. According to the University of Ottawa, Canadian and American businesses are losing $30 billion a year because of border delays in areas such as inventory access, manufacture, straight up sales. It’s so expensive to have unpredictable waits and unpredictable search systems.
Across the whole border, it needs to be made more efficient. They need more money, equal to the southern border, and it needs to be managed more efficiently. It needs to be hand tailored.
Q: You crossed so many different kinds of terrain — rivers, the Great Lakes, the high plains, mountain ranges. What was your favorite part of the trip?
A: The Winchester Mountain fire lookout in the North Cascades. That was the most magical part of the trip. I just could not believe those mountains — I have never spent the night on top of a peak like that. And it was a perfectly blue sky day. It was just incredible.
Porter Fox will discuss “Northland” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free, 206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com