On a Canoe Trip Along the U.S.-Canada Border, Solitude and Shooting Stars

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I DIDN’T SEE ANYTHING on East Grand Lake the next morning as I set out on the last leg of the trip. No border agents, markers, not even fishermen. Maine’s northland was once a premier destination for outdoor sportspeople in America. Wilderness lodges in Aroostook and Washington Counties helped create the concept of domestic travel in America in the late 1800s, when wealthy tycoons of the Gilded Age rode the trains they built to Augusta and Bangor to hunt and fish.

Many of the men who shaped modern America cut their teeth in the Maine woods. Henry David Thoreau’s first naturalist essay was published after an expedition to nearby Mount Katahdin in 1848, six years before “Walden” was printed. One of Theodore Roosevelt’s first hunting expeditions was in Maine in 1878 — when the future president was 19, asthmatic and skinny.

I envisioned the old sports gazing into the sea smoke the next day as I motored north along the border — past brown sandy beaches and garage-size boulders poking out of East Grand Lake. White pines, lodgepoles and red spruce grew along the shoreline. The border pushed me close to land a few times, and I spotted a black-backed woodpecker and yellow-bellied flycatcher darting through the trees.

Thoreau passed within 30 miles of East Grand Lake on two of his three expeditions to Maine. He traveled with two Penobscot Indianguides by canoe, in French bateaux, and on foot. The 3.5-million-acre boreal spruce-fir forest between Moosehead Lake and the Canadian border was undeveloped at the time. (Most of it still is.) Thoreau drank cedar beer and hemlock tea with homesteaders, ate moose lips and documented the hard, spartan life of the frontiersman (“We breakfasted on tea, hard bread, and ducks”) and the beauty of backwoods rivers and lakes (“a suitably wild-looking sheet of water”).

Tan stripes marked the high-water line on bluffs across from Blueberry Point. A stand of red and orange maple and oak rose over a small hill and dropped to the lakeshore. A large window at the Fosterville border crossing faced the road. I hugged the American side of the channel under a small bridge between the two border stations. I glanced back from the other side and saw the top of a border agent’s head looking the other way.

Cedars swooped over a beach on the southern shore of North Lake. Water lilies and duckweed turned the water green near the mouth of Monument Brook. A massive, restored farmhouse stood on the eastern end, surrounded by pasture. The water in between was flat calm.

The boundary runs through North Lake into the brook, then to a concrete marker at its head, where it shoots due north to the St. John River. The marker is called Monument 1 and is the first of more than 900 that reach across the United States from the St. Croix to the Pacific.

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