Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border by Porter Fox
W. W. Norton, 2018
272 pages / Norton
When I was 10 or 12 my cousin and I would accompany my grandfather and “the boys,” his buddies of 50-odd years, to a duck hunting cabin in the middle of pot-hole country in central North Dakota, dead on the hundredth meridian. On one several-hour drive home through the center of rolling prairie, Blaise Johnson, a Korean War vet and one of the younger of the crew, slowly sessioned a cooler of Genuine Drafts. Hunched with his forearms on the wheel, he squintingly pointed out wildlife he spotted with his hunter’s eye: antelope, teal, pintail and mallards, rabbits, muskrat, deer. It was surprising how much was out there if you really looked. And how easily one might write this landscape off as flyover country if you didn’t pay attention.
I thought what I was experiencing was an elder’s schooling, but Porter Fox, author of the meditative Northland: A 4,000 mile Journey along America’s Forgotten Border, would call it “a postcard from the Northland.” What he means was that it represented another unique dispatch from this stark, haunting, and distinct piece of North America, the kind of tales he has collected in his new book.
Fox writes with a bartender’s geniality and sense of the absurd, along with a native Maine-boatman’s practicality. A lifelong skier who now writes from Brooklyn, he paddled, rode freighters, and drove across this mostly unconsidered space with Blaise Johnson’s eye for detail, following N. Scott Momaday’s dictum that once in his life, “a man ought to concentrate his mind on the remembered earth.” And people. And equipment.
We learn, for example, about a specific piece of an outboard motor (a shear pin) one should always have in reserve, and even how to jerry-rig the fix if you don’t. He notes that one Maine captain didn’t know why he had named his last two boats “Captain’s Lady.” The words just sounded good together. Or that the French Voyageurs who pioneered a high route through the boundary waters carried so much weight (on average two bales of furs, total weight, 180 lbs.) and worked so hard that they died at an average age of 32, the most common cause: strangulated hernia. How wild is it to imagine early explorers finding those lakes thinking they were the Pacific and therefore the Northwest Passage, but then tasting the water and learning that this was a new thing, what Champlain in 1611 called “the sweetwater sea.”
Fox spent six days on a freighter crossing the bulk of the great lakes, logging dozens of hours in the wheelhouse with the crew. When he left, no one said goodbye but the captain: “Keep in touch,” he said in a tossed off way, knowing they’d never talk again and never try. That state of mind is an identity in itself, you might call it the Northland worldview, familiar in Lake Wobegon, that being an afterthought would be more attention than you deserve.
Many of Fox’s stories are suffused with what I first thought was loneliness, but later realized was something else—a forgottenness that borders on abandonment. Indeed, much of the history Fox interweaves is about wonderful characters all but forgotten—like Etienne Brule, a young assistant to Champlain who went native, overwintering with the Iriquois in bunkbedded longhouses, fasting for days to make supplies last, and who became the first European to see Lake Huron. There is a backwoods camp that had been frequented by Teddy Roosevelt but now nearly abandoned in an era when people don’t want the extreme isolation of nowhere. Or the bookstore just across the border near Niagara Falls that lost 70% of its business after 9-11 rules encumbered crossings. In the saddest cases, whole peoples were not forgotten but intentionally erased, like the Sioux tribes that Fox visited, who saw the Keystone pipeline battle as a reawakening of culture, heritage, and mission, the richness they could bring to the modern world, and whose progress was crippled, but not ended, by Trump.
Not since Barry Lopez’s masterpiece, Arctic Dreams, has someone thought so deeply about the North, in this case not the highest latitudes but the border. Lopez saw the northern landscape as an opportunity to glimpse our own desire, to bring what is actual together with what is dreamed. Fox sees the borderland as nothing so ethereal, but in these times, perhaps more practical and vital. An examination of this country, and its history, is a way to understand what we stand to lose through forgetting, not least of which is a little piece of ourselves.
Auden Schendler is a Colorado writer who spent his boyhood summers in the northlands of North Dakota and Montana.