The United States-Canada Borders


(This 950th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 7, 2009.)




The United States-Canadian borders and associated waters


While our politicians argue about security and the height of fences along our border with Mexico, this week, with culminating ceremonies on June 13, we will celebrate one hundred years of peace and stability along our tranquil and undefended borders with Canada.


Note that I say borders there. We should not forget that we meet Canada along a 1538-mile Alaska border as well as the more familiar 3937-mile border with our lower 48.


Article I of the Boundary Waters Treaty signed in 1909 begins, "The High Contracting Parties agree that the navigation of all navigable boundary waters shall forever continue free and open...," and indeed those waters and the lands between have been peacefully regulated with over 100 disputes, including such policies as the amount of water passing over Niagara Falls, settled amicably.


On land the International Boundary Commission provides for the regulation of structures within 10 feet of the boundary. Among these structures are a hotel and a cocktail lounge on the Quebec-New York line and many buildings in the villages of Derby Line, Vermont, and Rock Island, Quebec, where the boundary passes through bedrooms, apartments, a library, a factory and even an opera house.


Much will be said elsewhere about the events surrounding this celebration. Instead I decided to trace the lower boundary from coast to coast, a task that turned out to be more difficult than I expected. I had to spend hours in the University at Buffalo map room to follow some sections. Here is what I found on my imaginary expedition.


I began in the Grand Manan Channel of the Atlantic Ocean and followed channels up past Eastport, Maine to enter Passamaquoddy Bay. From there I went on along the St. Croix River through the Chiputneticook Lakes. When the river finally narrowed, a long straight shot north overland led me to the St. John River near Hamlin, Maine.


From that point I finally turned west along the St. John and then St. Francis Rivers until at Lake Pohenegamook a couple of straight passes led southwest finally to rejoin the St. John River and follow its meandering course south through Little St. John Lake.


Here is where the trouble started. The twists and turns of the overland route from here along the borders of Maine and New Hampshire with Quebec make no sense whatsoever. This is truly backcountry and I defy anyone to hike along this tortuous and I am certain unmarked route. Finally the border reaches the source of Halls Stream and follows it to Vermont. How and even whether it is monitored escapes me.


The rest of my imaginary trip was far more straightforward. The border follows a surveyor's line due west atop Vermont and New York to the St. Lawrence River, crossing Lake Memphremagog and both arms of Lake Champlain along the way.


Down the St. Lawrence I went, back and forth dodging islands, some on the U.S. side, some on the Canadian side.


Now through the more familiar Great Lakes. First Lake Ontario and up the Niagara River to Lake Erie. At the west end of Lake Erie I turned north to follow the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River into and through Lake Huron. At the north end of Huron the border twists around some islands and follows the St. Mary's River to Lake Superior.


From the north shore of Lake Superior at Grand Portage I proceeded up the old Voyageurs' canoe route through a series of streams, ponds and Rainy Lake to Lake of the Woods. There the border takes that little jog north to include the Red Lake Indian Reservation, the most northerly location of the Lower 48.


From the west arm of Lake of the Woods the route heads straight west along 49 latitude all the way to the saltwater channel between Washington and British Columbia. I found no distinguishing features along the long northern borders of Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and Washington.


Finally, I followed the line twisting south around Vancouver Island and out the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Pacific Ocean.


That geography lesson gave me not only a better appreciation for our abiding friendship with our Canadian neighbors but also a deeper understanding of the near impossible problems of border monitoring. -- Gerry Rising