America’s Forgotten Border

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Great Lakes, North Cascades, military-grade radar, drones, windstorms, luxury mountain homes, nature, hunting skills, Indian Wars, waterfalls & accidents.

Photos: Sara Fox

Words: From NORTHLAND: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border, by Porter Fox (W.W. Norton, 2018)

For two hundred years, the northern border was America’s principal border. The history of the continent played out along the line, chronologically from east to west: the Age of Discovery; the first colonies; the fishing, timber, and fur trades; the French and Indian Wars; the British Empire; the American Revolution; Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery; the War of 1812; the Indian Wars; and westward expansion.

Compass Rose

Crossing Lake Ontario.
A border monument in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.
Driving over Dawson Portage in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.
Camping with protestors at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.

At 5,525 miles, including Alaska, the “Hi-Line” is the longest international boundary in the world. Without Alaska, the 3,987-mile line capping the Lower 48 is the third- longest. No one knows where it begins. It is somewhere near Machias Seal Island, twenty-five miles off Jonesport, Maine. Most know where it goes: six hundred miles around Maine’s panhandle; across New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York; west along the Saint Lawrence River; through four of the five Great Lakes; into Minnesota’s Boundary Waters; and across North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington on the forty-ninth parallel.

Ely, Minnesota.
Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Mount Katahdin and Baxter State Park, in Maine’s northland.
The Algoma Equinox crossing Thousand Islands, New York, on the Saint Lawrence River.

The line emerges from a cloud of light off the Maine coast. It is invisible. Nothing distinguishes either side. It runs ten miles across the Atlantic before cutting west around the gabbro bluffs of America’s easternmost shoreline. From there, it passes into Passamaquoddy Bay and the Saint Croix River watershed before vanishing into the woodlands of northern Maine.

The wind blows constantly on the coast. It smells of pine, salt, decomposing fish, sea lavender, clam flats, seaweed. The tides are so powerful that they create the largest whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere. One hundred days of fog a year—not so much a mist as a permeable ocean above the ocean—and five-story sea cliffs make the coastline an ironbound dead end. The sound of trees and grasses hissing, swells hitting rock, is so constant you stop noticing after a while. The rumble blocks everything out. It envelops you, cuts the edges off the scene, and transforms it into a photograph. What you see in the picture is the edge of America and the beginning of Canada.

Black bear in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.
Bald eagle in Maine’s North Woods.
A mountain goat in the Cascade Range.
Sculpture at the Battle of Little Bighorn monument in Montana.
The “Path of Souls” in northern Minnesota.
Sunrise in northern Washington State.

Auto maintenance, home maintenance, knowledge of weather, fishing, and hunting are essential skills in America’s northland—because there is often no one there to do it for you. You can still put groceries on an account up north, run up a tab at the bar, or take out your neighbor’s fence after one too many as long as you fix it up within the month. The landscape there represents “nature” to people who visit for a long weekend and then race home. To northlanders, nature is not a thing you go see; it is the place you live.

When modern civilization finally arrived in the northland, it changed quickly. Silvery highways now cut across the backcountry, and high-voltage power lines slice through remote mountain passes. Tourists wearing safari vests have overrun centuries-old fishing and mill towns in the Northeast, while developers have made a killing selling luxury mountain homes in former Western ranching and mining towns. Before September 11, 2001, half of the 119 border crossings between the US and Canada were unguarded at night. Since then, the Department of Homeland Security has increased the number of agents by 500 percent and installed sensors, security cameras, military-grade radar, and drones—cutting off northland families, businesses, church congregations, hospitals, and Indian nations from their Canadian counterparts.

Author Porter Fox driving near the U.S.-Canada border.
Native American and fur-trader artifacts uncovered in Minnesota’s Sand Point Lake.
Camping in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.
Twilight in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.
Pictograph on Crane Lake, Minnesota.
View of the Saint Lawrence River from the Algoma Equinox.

Sara Fox is a travel, lifestyle and architectural photographer. Her work can often be found in The New York Times travel section, as well as in The Paris ReviewNational GeographicOutsideHemispheresArtful LivingOutdoor Life and Time Out. Her latest editorial work will appear in Taschen’s 2018 New York Times Explorer later this year. Sara is also the art director of Nowhere. (All photos © Sara Fox)

Porter Fox is the editor of Nowhere Magazine and the author of NORTHLAND (W.W. Norton, 2018).

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  1. Wow, these are fantastic photographs. That “Path of Souls” one is a knockout.

  2. As one who grew up on the US/Canadian Border I can vouch for Sara’s spectacular images. Yes… it is that peaceful, and quiet, and beautiful. I spent my youth driving the Border Lands from Detroit to Prince Edward Island many times. I’ve since moved west, but I’ll be back.

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