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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES in ME » MAINE (all topics) » The Other Maine
Frenchville, Maine, wedged between Madawaska and Fort Kent, has many Bilingual Signs
The Other Maine

Living on the Edge

By Alex Seise | April 25, 2011

Previous Article in this Series

Maine is the only US state that borders exactly one other state: the Granite State, New Hampshire.

But that 160-mile border pales in comparison to the great international divide between Maine and its northern neighbor, Canada. Running an astounding 611 miles, it is the third longest state border with the Maple Leaf nation behind only Alaska and Michigan.

An International Border Crossing from Canada looking toward Maine

While most of Downeast Maine may ponder the nearness of Canada when they see a New Brunswick license plate zoom past them on I-95, the residents of Northern Aroostook barely shrug at the occurrence.

This far north, the cultural lines between the two countries blur; the only time they come into focus is when a passport is exchanged at the twenty-five formal border crossings between Maine and New Brunswick or Quebec.

Many crossings are staffed 24-hours a day; others provide seasonal passage, one-way access or limited service to specific types of loads. But travel type aside, the routine at each crossing is the same. Border agents on either side verify individuals’ documentation and (more often than not) search vehicles for hidden passengers or illegally transported items.

When you normally think of illegal items, images of drugs, weapons and other sinister contraband come to mind. But border regulations also prohibit the transportation of common goods like potatoes, citrus and living plants. While the intent may be good, the execution is questionable; often times, supply trucks drop off products along their US route before crossing the border and delivering the exact same products in Canada.

A town sign, in the middle of a potato field.   The border is about 200 feet to the right

Living on the edge of the United States may not sound particularly dangerous, but don’t be fooled: it’s not without perils. Friends relayed the story of a visiting relative who, following her GPS navigation system, found herself zipping up I-95 toward a “funny” looking toll booth. EZ-Pass in hand, she sailed through.

She wondered why a frantically waving man jumped out of the booth in her rearview mirror. It turns out, that toll booth was actually a border station, and the woman had to explain her drive-by pass. Fortunately the agents were lenient and let her turn around with a stern warning.

The only thing jumping hands from American to Canadian territory and vice versa more frequently than people is currency. Cross-country trade is a staple of border economies. Currently, many shops and restaurants take neighboring money at par, alleviating some headaches.

Still, duty-free purchase limits are a sore item for shoppers. Americans shopping in Canada may bring back $200 worth of goods per person for a 48-hour or less stay; this increases to $800 per person for a stay of 48 hours or more. Canadians face similar limits though contraband tends to be less strict heading out of the states.

In Northern Maine, the shops take advantage of these limits. Some post large, colorful signs detailing the limits to entice foreign shoppers. Others go so far as to fly a Canadian flag beside the stars and stripes. In a region known for its slower, more relaxed pace of life, the economic game is all about psychological temptation—a perplexing, if not endearing, contradiction that further demonstrates Mainers’ will to thrive.

A Broad-winged Hawk

Though the border crossings can be intimidating—many (but certainly not all) agents are stony faced and entirely dedicated to protecting national security at the cost of saccharine politeness—they do not stop the people of Aroostook County. Some cross the border for drinks and dinner; others attend weekly church services on the other side. Many have family members living in adjacent towns separated by an invisible political line placed there during the 1838/1839 Aroostook War.

But perhaps the biggest thrill to living on the edge of a nation doesn’t have anything to do with economics or politics. Rather, it’s the charm of looking out the window to a landscape that looks strikingly similar to your own.

It’s knowing that a bird that flies overhead may have found its last meal internationally before soaring undetected across a phantom divide. It’s embracing the similarities in cultures, not the differences—and for that, David and I could not be more grateful.

True, we live in a world where trivial circumstances define perceptions. But in the rare instances when you can transcend such technicalities and embrace pure, non-territorial humanity, you really start to understand just the way life should be.

It’s a notion that Northern Maine picked up on long ago, and it’s irresistibly refreshing to outsiders and insiders alike.

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