Fluid Boundaries

by staffer Rachel Swenson

Since childhood we have been learning how to deal with our neighbors. We struggled as we grew with the concept of boundaries, both personal and physical. Taught to share with those around us, we grudgingly did, then screamed our fool heads off when our neighbor became a bit grabby and took our favorite toy. Lines were drawn down the back car seat on long trips with our siblings as cries of “he’s touching me!” rung in our parents ears. We ran rampant through neighborhoods as wild gangs crossing from one back yard to another, over fences, through hedges, past yapping dogs. Indignation grew when the sanctity of our room was violated so we created secrete places to ferret away our tiny childhood treasures. We claimed possession of items that were not always ours with strange phrases and excessive use of saliva. Lessons that we learned at an early age taught us to draw lines around ourselves to protect our stuff and ourselves.

As we grow and mature, some allow the boundaries of youth to expand, some allow them to blur and blend, others recede far behind walls of barbwire built by their own hands. Encountering new people and new places inevitably leads to personal boundaries being crossed, bumped, gnashed, jarred, and melded. We learn to redraw our internal maps to cope and learn. Challenging our boundaries is part of what gives life its texture. Taking risks and exploring gives us the opportunity to migrate in to new territory so that we can grow.

Carlos and I took advantage of our day off to explore a section of the BWCA new to both of us, the Granite River area, while expanding the edge of our personal maps. After a little bit of car juggling with an assist from Haley, we started off our adventure at entry point number 57, Magnetic Lake (click on map for larger version). As we paddled slowly into the wind that day, we spotted a number of international boundary markers that serve as physical reminders of an imaginary boundary between two neighbors, like a line drawn down the back car seat with a shaky finger. As two people in a canoe with a single pack, we easily slipped in between two nations without waking the slumbering giants.

In an age where security and immigration are serious topics discussed in the halls of our founding fathers and at the tables of our families, the ease of our travel struck me as a bit silly. There were no high chain link fences patrolled hourly like there is so many miles to our south. No sensor alarm went off, no one was standing there to ask for our passport, no baggage screen scanned our portage pack. We simply trekked on. Without our map and the little makers spaced far apart to remind us we had crossed out of bounds, we would not be any more the wiser of our transgressions. Both sides looked the same, smelled the same, felt the same. Two neighbors with so much in common. Crystal clear water, blue sky, loon calls echoing of glacial rock, rejuvenating forest.

Along our journey we ran into some turbulent water. The Granite River, which inspired the meandering international boundary, comes merrily to life in narrow granite clefts with some beautiful rapids and falls. Although technically we were traveling in the BWCA on the west side of the river, no distinction was made when it came to portage placement. Which ever side of the river was best suited for a trail, that is the side it was on. Apparently, all is fair when it comes to navigating dangerous waters in life. The joke became that when the portage was on the Canadian side, it was truly a portage (pronounced with a thick french accent). All day long we skipped back an forth from the west side of the river to the east side in an international game of hop scotch.

We worked are way slowly north, following the flow of the river which is north of the Laurentian divide, the geographical boundary between north and south. Things that belong to the earth pay no attention to the quibbles of us mere mortals. Countries, customs, laws and remote area border crossing permits can’t stop gravities pull on the water cycle. Eventually all that water that glided easily around our canoe and gurgled over rocky rapids will end up in Canada’s Hudson Bay. Right now though, it belonged to us. Its tepid quality was whipped up by the wind and shaded gray by an overcast sky, but for me any day is a good day to be paddling.

After pausing at Saganaga Falls, we began to work our way through the numerous islands that dot this giant lake loved by Canadians and Americans alike. Boats easily zig zag back and forth between countries, the only noticeable change being which outboard motor they get to use on which side of the line. Fording the waves and wakes we finally turned south again and left behind the mythical dotted line on the bottom of the lake that lives in infamy with the elusive snipe. With the wind at our back we followed the corridor back to the boat landing and my waiting car. Tired but content we headed back knowing we had paddled many miles and visited a different but not so foreign country.

When we made it back to Tuscarora, I went searching for some information on the peaceful yet lengthy boundary between the US and Canada and to learn more about the little markers we had seen. For an obvious starter, its a long one. Running the width of the lower 48, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the border is 3,987 miles. Minnesota alone boasts 547 miles of boarder land. Of the total mileage 2,199 miles are in the water, of which Carlos and I had paddled along 20 miles or so. Treaty after treaty were signed throughout history to nail down exactly which piece of land, which lake, which tree belonged to whom. In 1908 a joint committee, the International Boundary Commission, was formed to define and maintain the border. The task of maintaining a physical representation of the line in the sand seems a bit daunting to me. They are charged with maintaining some 8,000 markers and a swath of open expanse on land 10 feet wide on both sides. Personally, I am thankful that the borders around here are a bit more blurry and in the water so no ugly scar is visible in the surrounding boreal forest. Without a clear cut expanse to connect the dots, finding the next marker feels more like hide and seek to me than simply coloring within the lines.

All in all, I felt a bit like I was back in the neighborhood gang, hopping over fences between backyards in a game of intense international tag. I crossed over the invisible line over and over again. Took pictures of little metal markers painstakingly cemented into granite older than the human species. Ate deliciously illegal Canadian blueberries that had ripened to perfection in the summer sun that shines on both countries. Paddled into foreign waters without telling the appropriate authority figure just so I could make a loop around that alluring island in the distance. It was fun to flirt for the day with the idea of a land with no boundaries, where neighbors coexist in peace, content to share the bountifully adventure the northland can provide to those with a canoe, a paddle and a thirst for adventure.