Exploring a Borderland Region that Soon Might Change for Good

In Review: Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border

In his travelogue Northland, Porter Fox details his 4,000-mile journey along the Canada-United States border or what he calls “America’s Forgotten Border.” From Maine to Washington, this unexplored, often ambiguous, region is presented to the reader from multiple  dimensions. Moving deftly between past and present, and from country to country, Fox presents a beautiful, fascinating and changing landscape rich with stories of the people of this borderland region that has its own special name: Northland.

Little Indian Sioux River, Minnesota
The Little Indian Sioux River as it passes Echo Trail in the Superior National Forest near Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Cutting through waters, forests, and peoples, this obscure region used to be United States’ primary border area through much of its early history. Photo by Tony Webster.

The longest international boundary in the world, dividing two of the most powerful countries, looks “like an accident in many places,” Fox writes. Cutting through waters, forests, and peoples, this obscure region, which used to be United States’ primary border area through much of its early history “on paper, looks like a discarded thread — twisted and kinked in parts, tight as a bowstring in others.”

Fox, who grew up on an island in Northern Maine, spent three years exploring the border between Maine and Washington, traveling by canoe, freighter, car, and foot. From oyster fishing in Maine, to canoeing in Passamaquoddy Bay, to riding the Equinox across the Great Lakes, his adventures are illuminated with the beauty of the natural landscape of Northland, which he describes as an Arcadian place. Fox paints the landscape — the morning fog of Lubec, the plains of southwestern of North Dakota, the water of the Great Lakes— in loving detail.. Noting the recent developments in Northland such as the oil booms, security crackdowns, and protests, he captures a quietly poignant image of a region that is already changing for good.

Following the route of many explorers on this land, and the history of the border itself, Fox travels from the east to the west, starting in Lubec, America’s easternmost border town near Passamaquoddy Bay. Throughout his travels, he recounts the decisive lines, battles, and peoples along the Northland region. These tie in wonderfully with his current day stories as he contrasts the region’s past with his present-day adventures as well as current politics. He documents changes, similarities and effects of events and arduous and inaccurate process of drawing the border.

book cover

These, however, are no history class lectures. The accounts are brief, interesting, and accurate and provide a long timeline for the history of Northland, of its industries and lifestyles of the people who live here. For example, with oyster fisher Milton Chute he shares a brief history of oyster fishing in the area. The reader is therefore submerged not only into Fox’s stories, but also into the environment and the beauty of the Northland.

Despite the distinctiveness of these landscapes, the mysterious Northland remains a universal emblem of what we must preserve. While reading Northland, the reader develops a deep appreciation of the hidden, preserved, and fading: the dwindling wilderness.

The stories of Northland are filled with a similar kind of hidden beauty. Like the physical region itself, they have deep and crucial ties to the beginnings of America’s colonial history. As one of Fox’s friends says in the book, Northland was, “a place that didn’t change between the American Revolution and the 1970s.”

From a fourth-generation fisherman, to the descendants of America’s first peoples, Fox revisits stories that had been swept under the blanket of time. Although, like Fox’s own travels through this land, these stories may not be the most adventurous, we feel their power, and the pain of the people and communities being left behind as the country moves ahead towards a future that has little room for their ways of life.

Fox does not interfere with the lives of the people he comes across, he is merely a visitor, an observer of the larger trends in a region, which with its abundance of freshwater, oil and natural gas deposits, is key to this nation’s economic future. But the reader can’t help but wonder what happens to these people after Fox passes by. Like the last remnants of untouched wilderness, the people and communities in Northland are at a crossroads. Not many know how sustainable their lives can be in face of the changes that are coming, be it due to economic forces or due to our changing climate, and the reader is left empty at the thought that their stories are at risk of disappearing.

Along with the beauty of this borderlands region, Fox calls on us to recognize the changes affecting a place so often forgotten, but so crucial to the beginnings of this country’s current political boundaries, as well as its future.

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