While the southern U.S. border may grab most of the headlines, most Minnesotans know the northern one is bigger and wilder — the third longest international border in the world.
This fact was not lost on travel writer Porter Fox, who was raised in the northland and who set out on a journey along it for his new book, “Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border,” which recounts his fascinating trip through this overlooked wilderness. Fox talked in a recent interview about what makes the region different, about mapping the border through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and about whether a northern wall will ever get built.
You grew up near the northern border in Maine. What drew you back to it?
I heard stories about increased border security there after the Sept. 11 attacks. People thought that some of the attackers had crossed the Maine boundary, near my family home, but the rumors were not true. Before 9/11, half of the 119 border crossings between the U.S. and Canada were unguarded at night. Since then, the Department of Homeland Security has increased the number of agents there by 500 percent and installed sensors, security cameras, military-grade radar and drones. But I still walked and boated across many sections of the boundary unhindered. What the added security actually has done is to impede cross-border business, trade and travel, and cut off many communities, families, Indian tribes and ethnic groups from their Canadian counterparts. That was what initially drew me back. Then I found many more compelling threads like oil pipelines, water wars and the fascinating history of the northern border to follow.
How is what you call the “northland” different from other parts of the country?
It’s colder, more remote, less developed and less populated. The landscape is wild. Many of the nation’s largest roadless regions and wilderness areas are located in the northern tier. Much of the flora and fauna there live at their northern extreme, creating natural boundaries as well. The climate is more brutal than anywhere in America. People living in the northland often follow the traditions of the boreal homesteaders who first settled there. It is a place where they can get away from the fast pace of modern life, crowds, traffic and sometimes even the law. It is a place that has been largely forgotten by the rest of the U.S., including the U.S. government, which gives the region a somewhat autonomous feel.
Is there a common sense of “northness” that holds from Maine through to Minnesota?
There were similarities in architecture, economies, agriculture, pastimes and even diet. Most of the towns are small and are still centered around the ethnic core that settled them: German, Scandinavian, Irish, Native American, English, Russian, French. The landscape varies but the seasons are similar. The cold really shapes communities up there. Mainers told me they had two seasons: “winter and July.” Minnesotans had two seasons as well: “winter and road construction.”
Native communities featured heavily in your travels. Was that by design?
I had no idea that a dozen Indian tribes straddle the border and that many others were situated close to it. For thousands of years there was no hard border there. Then Europeans arrived and drew one right through the middle of the Indians’ land. The tribes did not lose this land to the U.S. Army in a war. The U.S. Congress stole it by offering peace treaties and then going back on them. Most of the northern border exists at the tribes’ expense. It only seemed right to tell that underreported part of the story.
I was surprised the border in the Boundary Waters took so long to survey. Why was that?
I grew up in Maine’s lake country, but I’d never seen anything like the Boundary Waters. Nor had the first surveyors who explored the region in the 1820s. They had to wait for winter in some sections so they could walk across neck-deep bogs after they froze. To triangulate a single position on the Pigeon River, they had to trek for days and scale sheer cliffs. The 1783 Treaty of Paris that created the first half of the border failed to define which of three trading routes in the Boundary Waters the border should be drawn along, meaning surveyors had to draw three borders before one was selected. They often walked where no American or Canadian had ever been, without the luxury of being able to choose the path of least resistance. They had to follow the line.
What surprised you the most on your trip?
I was surprised at how pristine the northland still is. A friend once said that the northland was “a place that didn’t change between the American Revolution and 1970.” It has changed quite a bit since 1970, but the wilderness is as it always was: rugged, primal, untouched. With so much changing and so many threats to the natural world these days, it was nice to see nature winning for a change.
Do you think we will ever build a wall across the north?
I would love to see them try.
Frank Bures is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.