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Checkpoint Charlie In The North Woods

At New Hampshire’s northern tip, a ridge cloaked in fir and spruce forms the border with Canada. Rain falling on the south side flows into the Connecticut River headwaters and southward to Long Island Sound; precipitation to the north makes its way through verdant pastures to the St. Lawrence River and the chilly North Atlantic.

In its final dozen or so miles before reaching Quebec, U.S. Highway 3 is known locally as Moose Alley. It is the ace up my sleeve whenever I want to take friends or relatives on a weaponless “moose hunt.”

I had a big agenda last Sunday morning when I set out on a moose hunt with my wife, our younger daughter and her boyfriend. First we drove from our vacation home in central Vermont across the Connecticut River to the Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves, an interesting attraction on a western spur of the White Mountains. After lunch in the tourist town of Lincoln, New Hampshire, we traveled the Kancamagus Highway across a 2,800-foot-high pass, then turned north through Crawford Notch for a look at Mt. Washington and the Omni Bretton Woods hotel complex, famous for the 1944 conference that established the world’s postwar economic system.

Most of this ride was through moose country, but there were no moose to be seen. This did not surprise me. Although moose are perfectly capable of showing up anywhere in their range at any time, they tend to come out at night and are most active at dusk and dawn. My daytime moose-spotting technique is to look for cars that have pulled to the side of the road in a moose jam. When you see tourists pointing and grabbing their iPhones, you have found a moose. We did not encounter any moose jams, though, on Sunday afternoon.

Still, I placidly repeated to my skeptical passengers the motto I adapted from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: “We always get our moose.”

It was late afternoon when we reached U.S. 3 and turned north along the Connecticut River, through towns like Colebrook and Pittsburg where moose memorabilia is ubiquitous. Though road signs warned of moose crossings almost everywhere, we still saw no moose, even in that last dozen miles before the border.

I remained confident. I had brought everybody’s passport along on this trip, and I carried some Canadian cash left over from my frequent business trips to Nova Scotia. My plan was to cross into Quebec’s Eastern Townships, find a nice place to have dinner and then return to the States around sunset, when the real moose action would be getting started.

The Canadian border guard was unfazed by our arrival. He checked our passports and recommended a restaurant in the village of La Patrie, about a dozen miles north of the frontier. We descended the mountain and, crossing the pastures below, spied a beaver racing for the safety of a roadside ditch.

My wife took exception to this. “There’s nothing to beav!” she said as she surveyed the treeless surroundings. We are MBAs, not wildlife biologists. I knew what she meant and I agreed with her environmental assessment, but nature does what nature wants to do. We were clearly dealing with a beaver that did not know its place.

The Canadian border guard’s advice was on target. We enjoyed a pleasant meal at the Resto Bar La Patrie, where a friendly waitress took the opportunity to practice her English. It seemed that despite its proximity, La Patrie is not a place that sees too many American travelers. I suspected this would be confirmed when we got back to the border.

I was right. There were no other cars present when we pulled into the 24-hour U.S. border station. (The Canadian side closes between midnight and 8 a.m.) I handed our passports to the agent, explaining that we had merely crossed over to Quebec for dinner and that we had purchased nothing. There was hardly anyplace to buy anything on Sunday night, anyway.

Apparently, the sight of four U.S. passport holders (three with the same last name) returning to their native country after a two-hour visit to Quebec is not a common one at the northern end of Moose Alley. The immigration agent and a colleague from Customs and Border Protection, who never spoke to us, kept us at the border post for 45 minutes. Not a single other vehicle arrived in that time, so I figured one reason for keeping us was boredom. But I am sure policy and politics also played a role.

First the immigration officer asked everyone in the car where we live and what sort of work we do. Then he asked to inspect the rear of the minivan, so I opened the back door for him. He thereupon disappeared into the office with our passports for 10 or 15 minutes. When he returned, he was carrying a customs declaration form that is ordinarily used only on airlines and cruise ships. He asked us to step out of the car and had me fill out the form, so I could declare under penalty of perjury that I had nothing to declare.

While I did this, the agent used a swab similar to those found at airport security to check the interior of the minivan. He looked beneath the car with a pole-mounted convex mirror. Next, as we waited in a small but comfortable holding area that had restroom facilities, he and his colleague spent a long time checking some records on their computer.

Until not too long ago, Americans and Canadians freely crossed the border with nothing more than a driver’s license, and without even that if they were on foot. Entire communities evolved as though the border scarcely existed. But this bi-national border culture has virtually disappeared, a victim of a politically driven but practically useless demand for “border security” that provides almost no security at all. Anyone truly intent on making it past the Moose Alley border post could simply follow the trails used by the moose.

It would make far more sense to simply share external border controls with our Canadian neighbors while freely allowing travel between our two countries. The Canadians would, in all likelihood, quickly agree to coordinate enforcement with us. But few Americans know, and even fewer care, how much wasteful silliness occurs on our northern border, where my Sunday experience demonstrated that security has been reduced to kabuki.

Eventually the immigration officer asked my daughter’s boyfriend, Joe, to sign his passport document. (He had neglected to do so when he first got it.) The officer then wished us a pleasant evening, and sent us on our way.

moose crossing the highway in 'Moose Alley'
photo by Joe Ranghelli, used with permission

It was well past nightfall, so my plan for a drive at dusk was dead. Still, some of the locals were driving their pickup trucks on Moose Alley while passengers shone flashlights into the woods. We did not see any moose on our first trip down to Pittsburg. But I turned the car around, and on the second trip back to the border, we were greeted by a young animal who stood in the middle of our lane, practically waiting for us to drive within headlight range so Joe could photograph her. (I think she was female, but at this time of year it is hard to be sure because males regrow their antlers every summer.) She then turned and walked slowly away while we followed at a respectful distance.

We spotted a second moose on our final drive downhill to the Connecticut River, along with lots of other wildlife, including a fox, a porcupine and too many deer to count. We had a great time. I would do it all again, including the side trip to Canada, but I would make a point of getting back to the border about an hour earlier. If our government is going to treat border posts in the North Woods as a post-Cold War version of Checkpoint Charlie, I will try to be better prepared for the formalities.

There may be a bureaucratic price to pay, but we always get our moose.

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