Book Review:  Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border by Porter Fox

I love a good travel book, and I am grateful for the serendipitous discovery of this one on the library shelves. In it, the author writes of his journeys from east to west along the northern border of the United States. He does not do it on a single trip but in five separate sections over the course of three years. He describes the landscapes and people he encounters and also delves into the history of each region.

In the first section, called “The Dawnland,” he journeys mainly by canoe along rivers and lakes in northern Maine, following the U.S.-Canadian border as closely as he can. He tells of the situation of commercial fishermen in Maine and of Champlain and other early French explorers and their attempts to explore, claim, colonize, and exploit the northland, especially in relation to the fur trade.

The second section is called “The Sweet-Water Seas.” It concerns the Great Lakes, which straddle the U.S.-Canadian border. For this leg of the journey, Fox books a cruise on a freighter traversing the Great Lakes. He boards in Montreal; the freighter travels up the St. Lawrence River and crosses Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior. The author finally disembarks at Thunder Bay on the northwest shore of Lake Superior. As he journeys, Fox regales readers with stories about the exploration of the lakes and early shipping history.

Next, in the section called “Boundary Waters,” Fox writes about the trackless wilderness of forests and a thousand lakes in northern Minnesota. To explore this wild country, he hires a professional guide and goes on a three-day canoeing and camping expedition. He writes of the Indians who first arrived in the area and explorers and trappers called voyageurs who traversed this wilderness in search of furs as early as the seventeenth century.

The section called “Seven Fires” takes place in North Dakota. Here the author mainly travels by car, and his focus is on Native American protests of oil pipelines fouling the waters that their reservations depend on. He follows the history of the tribes of the northlands, particularly the Sioux.

Section five is called “The Medicine Line.” This is in reference to a phrase Indians used when they were being pursued by troops. When they reached the U.S.-Canadian border, the U.S. troops would stop chasing them and the Indians would be safe, at least for a time. The western stretch of U.S.-Canadian border that runs along the forty-ninth parallel is the longest straight stretch of border in the world. Although it runs through rugged wilderness, much of it is delineated by a physical line in which the trees and other foliage have been clear-cut and markers have been laid. Here Fox writes about the politics of establishing the border and the rigors expeditions went through while surveying and marking it.

The combination of history and travelogue balances very well in Northlands, making it an entertaining read. The author is highly observant and has a simple but intensely descriptive style. If you like travel, history, and adventure, you are sure to enjoy this book.

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