Walking New Hampshire's Northern Border
“Good fences make good neighbors,” wrote Robert Frost, quoting his grumpy muse. No fences guard our stretch of the international border between the US and Canada, but a trek along those 58 miles offers plenty of reasons to reflect upon forces that unite us and those that divide.
“It’s a good thing Mr. Trump hasn’t set his heart on a wall here,” I think as I yank my leg from a slimy mudhole that collapses with a sucking sound as quickly as it formed, nearly taking my boot with it. All I see is swamp. Whether or not the Canadians were willing to foot the bill, the engineering might stump even the Donald’s best people.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, this was part of the vast hunting grounds of the Abenaki, whose homes were down in the wide river valleys known to New Englanders as intervales. Not much has changed. No one lives here or on the height of land to the east that I’ve just traversed. Most of Pittsburg’s 869 inhabitants are concentrated about 20 miles to my south. The border country remains a wilderness, unconnected to the world below. The US Customs and Border Protection station uses a Canadian area code since telephone lines do not run up here from the American side.
This is one of those charming ironies — that, along this stretch of the international border, Canada, symbol of wilderness, is more civilized than the United States. From the 3,000-foot ridge that separates New Hampshire from Quebec, you can see farms and arrow-straight roads to the north, where the land flattens out. To the south there are only trees, mountains and a few lakes, with no sign of human habitation anywhere. Before setting off on my walk along this lonely line through the woods, I had a short conversation with a Border Patrol agent. “I really shouldn’t tell you this,” he said, “but if you get into trouble out there, drop off into Canada. You’ll find help a lot sooner.”
For nearly all of its century-and-a-half colonial history, much of what we call New Hampshire today was practically a political no man’s land. The province fanned westward from Portsmouth, with settlement basically ending in the Merrimack Valley. North of New England was the New France colony of Canada, most of whose population clung timidly to the banks of the St. Lawrence. The Abenaki lived semi-nomadically in the remote and mountainous country in between. Until 1763, Charlestown was the northwesternmost settlement in New England. During the French and Indian Wars, adventurous French and English colonists and their native allies raided the outer settlements on the respective enemy sides, taking prisoners back to their homes closer to Boston or Montreal (and unwittingly nourishing the evolution of the captivity narrative as a distinctive literary genre). This tract of land, then, represented a wide frontier — as if replicating, by ancestral habit, the band of sea separating the old England from the old France.
When the French crown was driven from North America after the Seven Years’ War, the need to preserve a no man’s land vanished. The now-confident New Englanders pushed upstream along the Connecticut River. The French speakers to their north had become, like them, British subjects. When revolt came to New England 12 years later, the Province of Quebec decided against joining the thirteen colonies, and it became imperative to define the border unequivocally.
The Treaty of Paris in 1783 described the boundary between the new United States and British North America in what seemed like clear-cut terms: “A line drawn … along the … highlands which divide those rivers that empty themselves into the River St. Lawrence, from those which fall into the Atlantic Ocean, to the northwesternmost head of the Connecticut River; thence down along the middle of that river to the forty-fifth degree of north latitude …”
New England French
The lines between cultures are never as neat as political dividers. There has always been plenty of back-and-forth between New England and Quebec. The Eastern Townships were settled predominantly by Loyalists from what is now Vermont, French-Canadian families have been part of the fabric of North Country life since the beginning, and, today, much of the timber harvested in New Hampshire and Maine ends up in nearby Canadian mills. In the mid-19th century, there was an enormous influx of migrants from Quebec who came to work in New England’s textile industry. Even today, French is the second most widely spoken language in New Hampshire, with 16.17 percent of Coös County residents using it at home. Berlin even boasts its own dialect of Canadian French.
Trudging through this endless swamp, I can imagine how deceptively simple this could have appeared from afar. The line I’m supposedly following now looked so clean and neat when I saw it on a topographical chart in my living room.
Closely examine a detailed map of New Hampshire, and, in the far northwestern corner, you will see what looks like a sideways fist with its index finger extended into Canada. The south side of that finger is Halls Stream — although, at the moment, it’s less stream than mire. I am threading myself through 10-inch gaps in an alder thicket that chokes the water, trying not to lose sight of the main channel. I worry I’m lost a few times but then see grass bending on the bottom of the swamp and know which way the current is flowing. The reassuring thing about navigating down from a watershed is that gravity never lies.
It’s no wonder that, for a long time, no one took the trouble to bushwhack all the way up here in order to confirm whether or not this was actually the northwesternmost source of the Connecticut. Neither the United Kingdom nor the United States seemed terribly concerned with the details of this section of the border — there were so few people living here. Even now, I am genuinely surprised each time I stumble upon an orange survey marker, because it feels like no human being could have been here before.
The first surveyors to approach this remote angle, led by Jeremiah Eames of Northumberland in 1789, came only 16 miles up (of 25 in all) from the Connecticut River, decided that was good enough, and took a bearing east-northeast to the height of land. Eames was confident that Halls Stream was the crucial watercourse referred to in the treaty, and perhaps even more confident that no one would mount an expedition to disprove him.
I don’t know that I could resist teasing Jeremiah Eames about his shortcut, were I capable of time travel, but, then again, he had none of the benefit of road infrastructure, internal combustion and reliable cartography that I had in accessing my starting point. Simply living for a day in his world would probably be enough to make most of us call the whole thing off.
For me, it was merely a matter of convincing a friend to drive me 12 miles up a bumpy logging road that turns east off Route 3, five miles shy of the customs station, so that I could fulfill a quirky ambition to walk the 58-mile length of the New Hampshire-Quebec border. The road ended where Rhubarb Pond spills over a beaver dam and washes out the wheel ruts, but it leaves enough firm ground to hop across and make the remaining steps to Maine. From there I took a compass bearing, “north 2 degrees west,” in the language of a royal decree of 1739 defining the border between Maine (then Massachusetts) and New Hampshire, until I hit the 20-foot wide swath of cleared trees that marks the international boundary, the northernmost point in the state.
As it turned out, I wasn’t exactly at the spot where Maine, New Hampshire and Quebec meet, and I had to look around for a few minutes until I found some yellow tree tags marking where the border between two states intersects the one between two countries. Then I turned west toward Vermont.
This northeastern section is remote and rugged. It snakes up and down over steep, ledged terrain and is often overgrown with thick brush and briar patches, making the traveling a kind of light-duty bushwhacking.
It was four hours before sunset when I started, and I soon came to the western end of Boundary Pond. I would be following the divide between two massive drainages for the next two days. All water flows away from this line, never across it. So, unlike in most places in New Hampshire, I wouldn’t be able to count on easy access to good water. I decided to drink what I had and refill here. A beaver swimming near the shore dove for cover when I popped out of the woods to dip my bottles in the pond.
From the crest of each new rise, I could see the vista, as the slash through the forest is officially called, stretching out before me like a ribbon draped over the land for as far as I could see. Then I would sink down again onto muddy saddles, where bugs massacred my exposed forearms and face. I counted black flies, mosquitos, deer flies, horse flies and no-see-ums.
As it started to get dark, the flies gave no sign of letting up. There was a breeze in the tree tops though, and, when I saw a hunting blind consisting of an open platform 15 feet off the ground, I knew this was the place to camp. I’ve quit traveling with a tent or bug net, carrying only a tarp for rainy nights, so I wanted to be up in that breeze. I cooked some dinner and admired the dusky view along the hills of Quebec and western Maine. When darkness and the temperature fell, I crawled into my sleeping bag and drifted off.
In the years after Jeremiah Eames’ survey, stakeholders in two land companies began moving into the country around the headwaters of the Connecticut. As both companies were based in New Hampshire, most of the settlers came from there. However, many also arrived from Vermont and a few from nearby parts of Canada, which, unlike today, were mostly inhabited by English speakers with strong ties to New England.
In theory, the United States and Great Britain agreed about where the international border lay. They had, after all, signed a treaty saying as much. The problem was what it didn’t say. There are three streams that flow into the upper Connecticut from the northwest, but, in 1783, no one knew for sure which of the three reached farthest in that direction. This allowed each government to construe the treaty’s language in a sense favorable to itself. Nevertheless, for 59 years, neither seemed willing to lend the institutional support that would make citizens of those living in the area. Wary of anarchy, the settlers of the contested territory took matters into their own hands and, in 1832, drafted a constitution for the sovereign Republic of Indian Stream. The Republic lasted only three years and was followed by five more of “occupation” by New Hampshire, while letters were dispatched between Washington and London. In 1840, the Indian Streamers incorporated under New Hampshire as Pittsburg, and, finally, in 1842, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty specified that Halls Stream was in fact the border, whereby Great Britain relinquished its claim to the Connecticut headwaters. Between 1843 and 1847, an official survey was conducted, then renewed in 1908, using up-to-date geodetic methods, by the newly created International Boundary Commission.
My hunting blind was only one of hundreds hugging the Canadian side of the tree-shorn vista. Locals say that, because New Hampshire is more heavily forested, the moose tend to prefer it here. But Quebecois hunters are just as eager to get their quarry, so they pitch their blinds as close as they legally can and do their best to lure the moose across. Nearby are salt licks and basins of drinking water. I’m told that, in the fall, hunters set out barrels of fruit. Some of the blinds are impressively elaborate, tiny cabins on stilts. I climbed into one the next morning for a better look and found mousetraps, cooking utensils and two trim stacks of leisure reading — hunting magazines and pornography.
At noon, I made the long descent to New Hampshire’s only border crossing. Route 3 climbs gradually from Pittsburg to this outpost, then the road drops sharply in a long, perfectly straight line to the village of Chartierville. Its grade is so uniform that drivers experience a sensory illusion of being dragged along a flat road by a magnetic force.
When I emerged from the woods, swatting wildly at a swarm of bugs, a CBP officer came out of the station and asked where I’d come from. I was surprised that he knew little about the lay of the land and even more surprised that he hadn’t expected me. I’d informed both the Border Patrol and CBP that I would be walking the line. So much, I thought to myself, for all the talk I’ve heard of drones, motion sensors, thermal cameras and sophisticated information sharing. He was polite and let me come inside for water.
Not far from Fourth Connecticut Lake, I heard someone shout through the woods, “Bonjour!” So I shouted back the same, only to be inundated with a torrent of French. I apologized and asked if the man and woman walking toward me from the Canadian side, with bottles of Labatt in hand, happened to speak English. They did. Their names were André and Ghislaine Laflamme. They lived in a house just through the woods, and their property abuts the border.
The Laflammes speak good English with French-Canadian accents and have strong cross-border ties. They are dual US-Canada citizens, and it seems they’re as likely to spend their time in Pittsburg or Colebrook as in the small towns north of the border. They have two daughters, they tell me, one who lives in Cornish, the other in Franklin. André points out that his T-shirt came from a tractor dealership in Keene.
There was a rope with a sign that read “PROPRIÉTÉ PRIVÉE” hanging across the trail that leads down to the Laflammes’ house. “I do not like this,” said André, “but I put it up in the winter because, otherwise, I have drunk snowmobilers driving past my window in the middle of the night. But it is winter no more, and it is not neighborly to close a trail.” With that, he unhitched the rope and opened the passage.
Beyond Prospect Hill, the terrain becomes gentler and less rocky. It is tracked out much of the way by four-wheelers, and I no longer had to contend with head-high brush. Despite the more forgiving terrain, I met no one, nor would I until coming out at the southwestern end.
At one point, I had a commanding view over Saint-Isidore-de-Clifton, the only town I got a good look at from up on the ridge. The characteristically French-Canadian tin steeple on the village church glimmered. The place was colorful amid the sea of green. I felt as though I were looking on a great city.
From here, I seemed to go down and down. The stern spruce and fir gave way to the luscious broad leaves of hardwoods. Now that I was in lower country, the bugs (all five kinds) assailed me worse than the night before. I had no choice but to walk until it got dark and cool. A moose teetered by a salt lick a few feet from the swath but preferred to stay back until I’d gone past. When I finally made camp, there were three lights in the distance and, against the northwestern sky, a soft suffused reflection from Sherbrooke. Overhead, the air was dense with stars.
After leaving the worst of the swamp from which it rises, Halls Stream is still hedged in tightly by forest. The easiest way to make progress the third day was simply to walk in the water.
This western segment of the boundary is a reminder that borders are slippery things, not the ordained limits we might think from blind faith in maps. According to a report by the International Boundary Commission, since 1908, the course of Halls Stream has shifted by as much as 800 feet in some places. In earlier times, this would have meant that the international boundary itself had moved. But, here, time is frozen; the boundary is a snapshot of 1908, surveyed as a series of straight lines measured between permanent monuments on land. Following the stream, I was walking in the past, as it were, with no way of knowing at any given moment whether I was in Canada or the United States.
In the afternoon, I heard whoops and the sound of ATVs and knew that Halls Stream Road was nearby. I stripped down for a final dip in the brook before heading back to civilization.
Only a mile or two of walking brought me to a gate, where the forest opened into farmland and there were views across the intervale to the Quebec village of East Hereford, whose namesake mountain rises behind it. Five or six more easy miles past houses with people out visiting and planting their gardens brought me to the Connecticut River and Beecher Falls, VT, the end of my journey.
It was twilight, and I still had to cover 12 miles to Colebrook to retrieve my car. But I was hungry and in no particular hurry. So I crossed the river to Stewartstown and took a booth in a familiar diner. I ordered a plate of poutine for my supper — and, for dessert, of course, a slice of apple pie.