Lessons on the U.S. Border. (No, Not That One.)

Posted July 29, 2018 2:08 p.m. EDT

There’ is no shortage of reporting and opinion about the border between Mexico and the United States. Much less often in the spotlight, the border between the United States and Canada nonetheless offers Americans an instructive window onto their past, present and future. It is the longest international boundary in the world, and was the setting for a great deal of momentous early U.S. history. To write his new book, “Northland,” Porter Fox spent three years traveling about 4,000 miles from Maine to Washington, meeting the region’s people, studying its history and learning its natural contours up close. “I didn’t make an itinerary,” Fox writes. “There was no timeline. I started the way every other northland explorer had for the last 400 years: I packed a canoe, tent, maps and books, and headed for the line.” Below, he talks about what he learned on his travels, his obsession with certain historical characters and more.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: When did you first get the idea to write this book?

A: It was in a conversation with my editor and agent. We were batting around ideas for something to write about. The northern border came up and I just jumped on it. It’s the border that nobody talks about. There’s so much written about the southern border; it’s in the news all the time, presidents use it as a bargaining chip and a rallying cry. The northern border was our first border. It has such a deep history, which tells the story of how America was created.

I grew up in northern Maine and spent summers 5 miles from the Canada-U.S. border. I just knew the Northern tier of the U.S. so well. I felt comfortable there and knew the people. It would be a great adventure, and I knew I could do it.

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

A: The depth of history, all the things that happened along the northern border, from the Age of Discovery to colonization to the timber trade to the ice trade — which was incredible to read about — Lewis and Clark, James Polk and the Oregon Treaty. I took U.S. history. I’m a reader. But I didn’t understand how America was created piece by piece. It was exciting, because it happens chronologically from east to west, literally mile by mile, from Maine to the Northern plains to the Pacific. Every hundred miles, you’re covering a decade of U.S. history.

The thing that really hit me was how Jefferson planned Western expansion so long ago, and how they planned to dupe the Native American tribes that were living there. They knew they could not conquer them at that time, militarily, so they created a strategy where they didn’t have to fight them on the battlefield; they could just trick them into signing these treaties — more than 300 of them — and just ignore the treaties. The more I got into it, the more disbelief I felt about this country we call home.

Q: In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

A: I set out to write a book about the border. I was researching surveys and the history of how it was created. But from the get-go, I started wandering away from the border, staying within about 100 miles of it. I discovered this concept of the northland, this singular region in the U.S., which I hadn’t read about before. I realized it was this giant swath of territory that’s defined by climate, very old ethnic communities — many of which descended from the first settlers — massive wildernesses and roadless areas. I found so many similarities across the region. I started meeting some characters and going deep into the woods and up these rivers. It went from being a border book to more like “Great Plains,” by Ian Frazier; more of a set piece about a region.

Q: Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

A: Samuel de Champlain. He was the first character I read about, just getting ready to start the trip. I dove so deep. He was a Renaissance man at the tail end of the Renaissance. He was a humanist who had a vision of creating a new world from the ashes of what France and even Europe had become at that point, in the late 1500s or early 1600s.

He could write and sketch. He started a dinner club, during the third year of his settlement in America. People were dying left and right of scurvy and whatnot, and to boost morale he starts this club. Whoever cooked the best meal got some kind of reward. People went scavenging through swamps for something to add a little flavor to their meal.

I was totally obsessed with Champlain, and of course his navigation and sailing skills, which totally baffle me. My dad was a boat builder, so I really get into the boating stuff. These guys were going into the forest and just building a 40-foot boat. With an ax. And then sailing it 500 miles. It’s so insane.

Q: Persuade someone to read “Northland” in 50 words or less.

A: It’s about this very wild, forgotten corner of America that witnessed so much major history. There’s a lot happening up there right now as well, in terms of natural resource issues, indigenous rights issues. It will shape the future of this country for the rest of the century and beyond.

Publication Notes:

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

By Porter Fox

247 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.