Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Back in the USSA - Dispatches from Maine

We have just returned from another adventure on and beyond the edge of America.  This past weekend my wife and I headed north from the lake cottage, spending time at my favorite lodge in far northern New Hampshire and visiting with friends who call the North Country their home.  While we were there we had an opportunity to enter nearby Canada twice in order to do a little sightseeing and exploring in Québec’s beautiful Canton de l’Est (the Eastern Townships south and east of Montréal along the borders with Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine).  This is stunningly beautiful country with rolling hills populated by small, idyllic villages and farmsteads.

This use to be the bastion of the province’s Anglophone communities.  Today one is hard put to find anyone who can speak much more than rudimentary English.  Blame this on Québec’s rather draconian language laws which demand that French be the only official language spoken in the province.  But this does not bother me.  I get along fine when I am there.  I can read the signs and make myself understood when necessary.  The scenery is too good to pass up. C’est la vie, non?  But I am getting ahead of myself.

The first time we entered Canada over the weekend was at Norton, Vermont/Stanhope, Québec.  I pulled up to the modest custom house where the inspector looked at our passports, asked a couple perfunctory questions, and sent us on our way as we admired the awesome scenery we had come north to see..  The next day we entered at Pittsburg, NH/Chartierville, Québec, a crossing I have been using for years.  Once again the Canadian customs inspector emerged from a structure very similar to the one we encountered the previous day.  He also looked at our passports and waved us through satisfied we were who we claimed to be.

By entering Canada twice, we also had to reenter the USA twice . . . and that was an eye opening experience.  After the first day touring around some of our favorite places in the Canton de l’Est, we returned to New Hampshire via the Pittsburg port of entry. Marking the northern terminus of US Route 3, this is the only crossing point along the 58-mile international border separating New Hampshire and Québec.  And there are several miles of wilderness between it and the first human habitation on the American side.  It really is the end of the road.  I have been doing this for years and I have always thought of the Pittsburg customs house as a good case in point for the old saw that the US-Canadian border is the longest undefended border in the world.  That may have been true once, but it is the farthest thing from the truth now.

Back in the day this border crossing was about as isolated as any along the US-Canadian frontier.  In fact, until 1960 there was no official border crossing here.  That only occurred in 1960 when US 3 was completed the last few miles to the border.  And even then it was only manned during the day and only at certain times of the year.  Persons arriving at other times were directed to cross and report to the customs house located in Beecher Falls, Vermont several miles farther down US 3.  The US and Canadian customs houses were small ramshackle wooden structures manned by a skeleton staff and situated on a wind-swept notch in the Height of Land that delineated the border.  A pair of small granite pylons set between US and Canadian flags marked the actual border and one could be photographed there with one foot in each country.  Otherwise there was very little else to see.  I have also parked here several times and wandered up to the Fourth Connecticut Lake, the headwaters of New England’s grandest river nestled on the US side just below the crest of these forested hills that are the divide between the Atlantic and St. Lawrence River watersheds.  Part of the trail is marked with small metal discs attached to rocks marking the border.  I crossed back and fourth over the border several times on the short hike to the lake that is nothing more than a glorified marsh.

That was then.  The events of September 11, 2001 have unfortunately changed everything forever as the US authorities have gradually sealed the borders of Fortress America.  The Canadian border station here has seen a few upgrades over the past decade, most noticeably a barrier gate that rises and lowers admitting vehicles once they have completed inspection.  Otherwise there are few discernable changes on that side of the line.  The pylons and the flags are still here but now stand isolated in a virtual no man’s land between the two border posts.  Gone is the small wooden US customs house that stood here for 50 years. In it’s place is an unsightly 6500 square foot monstrosity that belies the fact that this is still an isolated and infrequently used border crossing.  It handles only a few automobiles and commercial vehicles (most of them seem to be logging trucks) annually, and most of these in July and August.  During the winter months there is virtually no traffic going through here; a few cars braving the heavy snowfalls and the occasional snowmobile.  But that is about it!

As we passed through what the Department of Homeland Security now calls a LPOE, or a Landed Port of Entry, we were confronted not only with the structural monstrosity which went into full operation one year ago after a two year construction project costing the American taxpayers almost $8 million, but also encountered a menacing and forbidding array of nuclear material detectors, spotlights, vehicular barriers and chain link fencing incongruous with the unpopulated wilderness where it is located.  I remarked to my wife at that time that it reminded me of the East German border control stations I use to pass when I crossed through the former Iron Curtain.  Thankfully those ugly lusus naturae have passed into history only to be replaced by an American LPOE on a quiet ridgeline in the New Hampshire wilderness.  How sad.

Once safely sealed into the inspection area with all the gates down in front and behind us and our engine shut off, we presented our passports to a friendly but officious and well-armed Customs and Border Protection agent.  Gone, too, are the days when the border patrol official steps out of the small customs house to ask a few questions and send you on your way.  One almost feels guilty of something and I have to remind myself that I am an American simply returning to the land of my birth.  I can only imagine how Canadians and other foreign travelers must feel when they arrive in the Home of the Free and the Land of the Brave.

And it does not stop here.  The rest of the 58-mile border between New Hampshire and Québec, longed marked by a wide clear-cut, is now festooned with cameras and motion detectors in case anyone hopes to sneak into America through the woods.  Helicopters, which have been used for years along the Mexican border, are occasionally observed here.  Unmanned and unarmed Predator drones similar to the armed version deployed in Afghanistan and which are now commonplace for surveillance purposes along our southern borders, have been tested along the Canadian border in recent years, although the authorities are unclear whether they are in use here now.  I have spoken to inhabitants of the North Country who have assured me that they have seen and heard them.  This seems all the more ominous when I see current reports in the media that Homeland Security is now considering weaponizing these drones in order to “immobilize” targets in border areas.  Considering all of the negative media attention the deployment of armed drones in Afghanistan has stirred up with reports of civilian collateral damage (i.e. innocent civilians being mistaken for terrorists and killed in a drone attack), I cannot fathom the possibility that the US government would consider deploying armed drones against targets along the US border.

The following day we returned to Canada briefly to do some additional exploring before crossing back into the United States farther east, at Coburn Gore, Maine.  Once again we drove north on US 3 through miles and miles of uninterrupted wilderness.  We passed Third Connecticut Lake on the left . . . long one of my favorite places on earth which I return to time and time again in every season.  Another mile and we follow a slight bend in the road and we are once again confronted with the back side of the new LPOE surrounded with more high chain-link fencing.  Another high fence runs down both sides of the northbound lane of traffic, strangely reminiscent of a recent photo I saw of the Kaesong Highway that runs across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating South and North Korea.  Certainly the Department of Homeland Security would shun the comparison, but there it is.  We emerge from this ugly cage as we pass the granite pylons marking the international border.  The pleasant agent steps out and wishes us a “Bon Jour!”  Sally Ann asks if he will stamp her passport and he is happy to do so.  The barrier goes up and we descend down the long northern face of Mégantic Hill to the charming hamlet of Chartierville, the expansive farmland of the Canton de l’Est before us.  

Later in the afternoon it is time to finally head back to the lake in Maine.  We make our way to Coburn Gore, the southern most of the border crossings into Maine.  It is equally isolated yet it still looks very much like it always has.  The big yellow nuclear material detector gates have been added and there are a couple barriers that go up and down and perhaps a few more spotlights.  We pull in and shut off the engine as the inspector steps out to check our license plate.
“How are you folks doing today?” he asks.
We say we are fine and ask after him.
“Oh, fair to partly cloudy,” he responds with a smile.
He asks us the standard questions and checks our passports.
“Welcome home,” he says as he hands them back.  “Have a nice day.”
The gate went up and we were on our way back to the lake.

The United States is not the only country fighting the war on terror.  This past week two residents of British Columbia were arrested for attempting to plant bombs near the provincial legislature in Victoria.  Earlier this spring two Tunisian immigrants studying in Quèbec with alleged links to al-Qaida were arrested for conspiring to bomb the Via Rail train between Toronto and New York City.  And there is the infamous Toronto 18 who plotted to storm Parliament Hill in Ottawa and set off truck bombs throughout Ontario.  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service work together regularly to thwart terrorist threats along US border.  Still, most of the visible security upgrades are evident only on the US side of the line.  It is possible to fight terrorism successfully without hermetically sealing the border and treating all travelers as suspect.

There is a good way to welcome people to the United States, both native sons and daughters happy to be home, and foreign guests who come here by choice hoping to see if all the good things they have heard and read about America are true.  Entering through the lonely crossing in Pittsburg, NH left me cold.  Arriving at Coburn Gore is as it should be.  There is a wrong way and a right way, and these are good examples of each.

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