By Sandy Lang | Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
What difference could a little international boundary make? With passports in the glove box, we drive north for the weekend to see.
Finally off the interstate at the northbound turn onto Route 1 in Houlton, I get hopeful about the chance for more roadside scenery. I-95 is a speedy route, but in northern Maine the road is at its most monotonous—all lines and straightaways with few exits—and not what you want for a real road trip. For the weekend, I get the idea to drive far north of Portland, Bangor, and even Presque Isle. I want to see what we can find in Maine’s northernmost towns and just across the border, where the North Woods and the French-Acadian countryside meet. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards is with me, and this time he brings his old hound, Sparky.
It’s a Friday afternoon in Houlton, and we pass a line of people outside the Houlton Farms Dairy Bar—the one with the large sign shaped like a milk carton. In the interest of pressing on for more northward destinations, we don’t stop for a cone. When we get to the tiny village of Bridgewater, though, I turn the station wagon around for another look at a wooden-barrel-making shop (unfortunately, it’s closed) and at a wayside stand for berries (payment method: honor system) in front of a barn with a handmade sign advertising a corn-field maze that will apparently open in the fall. I’m partial to such roadside attractions.
Not far past Mars Hill, near Westfield, I see something peculiar on the east side of the road, and we slow down and pull into a grassy lot. Is that what I think it is? Yes, it’s a painted metal sculpture of Saturn on a post that’s a good twenty feet tall—the ringed planet positioned in its trademark tilt. We’re the only visitors just then, and Sparky makes his way to the shade of Saturn’s shadow on the sculpture’s base while a man on a tractor tends the rows of potato plants on the hills just beyond. I read a plaque and realize that somehow we missed Neptune and Uranus, and that the roadside display of our solar system’s planets and moons continues from Houlton to Presque Isle.
Even though I’m now on the lookout for more planets, I don’t see any more sculptures as we motor on through Caribou and Van Buren, from which Canada is just across the St. John River. On this stretch of Route 1 to Madawaska, massive historic churches line both banks of the river—they are the largest and grandest buildings in sight. Were they built to lure residents to the opposite side? In the village of Lille near Grand Isle is a forest green and a decommissioned Roman Catholic church with twin bell towers. The doors are locked when we pass, but I find out later that it’s the former church of Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel. Built a century ago, the building has been restored over the last three decades and converted into a cultural museum and performance space that sometimes features Quebecois and Acadian concerts. I wish live music were scheduled for that night! No luck, but we continue on through Grand Isle and get a glimpse of something pretty great. In a riverside ballpark just off the road, kids are playing softball, charcoal grills are getting lit, and chairs are being unfolded. A tower of wood for the evening’s bonfire is stacked taller than head high. It’s the picture of small-town Maine.
After more than four hours of driving (from Bangor), we make it to Madawaska, a paper-mill town with an enchanting name. In the middle of this most northern town in Maine is the bridge we’ll cross into Canada. A line of cars keeps traffic at a standstill for a few minutes. We’re midway across the river, literally on the boundary line. The car’s front seat is across the international border—Peter Frank and I are in Canada and Sparky is still back there in the United States licking his paws. National borders are interesting concepts. They mean a lot and a little, all at the same time.
I’m at the wheel when the Canadian border agent greets us with a bonsoir, and asks questions about where we’ve been, where we’re going, and why. The standard interrogation makes sense, and all is going smoothly when he looks at the hound. “Is that your dog?” he asks. This catches me off guard. Whose dog would we be driving around? I don’t actually ask this, but simply nod yes. Then, that’s it. We’re in. I’ve booked a room for two nights on the Canadian side of the river near Edmundston, New Brunswick. In the last minutes of dusk, we follow a road along the river for a few miles to get there. We are now in the land of Valley French (all signs are en français), and we’re looking back at Maine across le Fleuve Saint-Jean.
We celebrate our international arrival with a dinner at a place that was highly recommended by the clerk at the Days Inn Edmundston (a tidy lodging where pets are allowed). She says the restaurant is connected to a gas station within sight of the hotel and that it serves local specialties. In minutes, we’re in a booth ordering plates of poutine and poulet frit and a couple cans of Alpine Light from Moosehead Breweries in St. John. The poutine ordinaire at Restaurant du Quartier is a mound of hot fries smothered with brown gravy and a soft-white grated cheese. A knife and fork are needed, and the cheese stretches so much that I twirl it like spaghetti to break it. (I get the idea by watching two French-speaking men at a nearby table doing the same thing.) Peter Frank tries the “pressure-fried” chicken with the extra crispy, golden-brown skin, and he isn’t disappointed.
On Saturday morning, I’m ready to see more Acadian culture. In downtown Edmundston, a block of Hill Street is closed to cars for the weekly farmers market. It’s a good spread. Under tents are tables of fresh garlic scapes, salad greens, strawberries, and other garden vegetables; canned jams, salted herbs, jars of pickles, and jugs of maple syrup; beautiful pies and other baked goods; and custom-made violins and all sorts of woven and knitted items, from rugs to socks and gloves. We sit to watch the scene from tables arranged in a parking lot beside the market. Vendors are selling crepes, chicken stew, and ployes, a traditional New Brunswick staple. We end up talking with the ployes man for a while. He’s mixing a yellow-green batter made from buckwheat that grows nearby (you can see the fields of yellow from miles off). Steam rises from the batter on the hot griddle while he explains that ployes were traditionally eaten by French Acadian woodsmen—a faster alternative to breads that needed time to rise. He informs us that they should be fried only on one side—the other side bubbles into craters that can be filled with butter and brown sugar or cretons (a spread of pork, nutmeg, and other spices). The ployes are then rolled up so they can be carried and eaten easily. I’m a pancake fan, so I’m particularly interested in this demonstration. French folk songs and American oldies play over loudspeakers somewhere nearby. I grab a few cups of coffee at the Cozy Cafe across the street, and we end up at the ployes stand twice that morning.
After the market, we take a sunny Saturday drive through the river valley, following Canada’s wide Highway 2 down to Grand Falls where a crowd is watching the churning water plunge over rocks from a dam on the St. John River. Picnic tables are full, and a line of people in helmets and safety straps are waiting on platforms on either side of the river to glide over the falls on overhead zip lines. The lighter-weight tourists keep getting stuck just short of the opposite platform (an attendant then slides out and pulls them in). We watch for a while and then go for ice cream, and later we make a border crossing back into Maine at the bridge between Saint-Léonard and Van Buren. On the American side we’re asked to step out of the car while they give it a good search. It goes quickly, and we’re soon back on Route 1, this time continuing west of Madawaska and through Frenchville, where the historical society has a museum of local memorabilia in an out-of-service red caboose that dates back to World War II. We park and follow the train tracks inside, where displays include a couple of cot-style beds from the caboose’s early days as a troop sleeper car. “I bet it’s interesting to you that Canada’s right over there,” the museum volunteer says when we mention our weekend of crossings. She explains that she’s lived her whole life on the border and doesn’t think much about it. Peter Frank, meanwhile, is thinking of dinner. He’s heard of a good place on Long Lake, a few miles southeast of Frenchville, and we drive into the hills on Route 162 to find it.
The lounge of the Long Lake Sporting Club isn’t full when we walk in at 5:30, but it’s packed by 6 p.m. Everyone around us is speaking French, drinking beer or cocktails, and watching the sunset. From the wall of old pictures and news clippings posted in the entrance hallway, I learn that some form of the club has been operating on the site since the 1920s. We quickly start to catch on that there’s a longstanding—and unusual—system for ordering. According to our waitress, appetizers and drinks are served in the lounge and must be paid for in full before going to dinner. There are no individual menus, but standing display cards on each table list several appetizer choices (including locally smoked trout and crackers) and nine or ten entrees, including steaks, ribs, three- to four-pound lobsters and other seafood, and of course, pressure-fried chicken. Dinner orders are taken in the lounge, and a hostess returns later to bring guests to the dining rooms at the exact moment when their food is ready to be served. A steaming-hot stack
of ployes and syrup awaits at each table. Waitstaff buzz in and out of the kitchen to make it all work, and the parking lot is full even when we hop into the car to go.
To get back to our Canadian lodging that night, we cross from Fort Kent into Clair on the eighty-year-old steel-truss bridge that I understand will soon be replaced. I hope they don’t change the scale much. There’s a pedestrian walkway, and as we drive I see a man simply walking from one country to the next. On Sunday morning, we awake to one more day of temperatures reported in degrees Celsius, speed limits posted in kilometers per hour, and newspapers published in French. Soon we’ll be making the four-hour return drive, going south to the cabin near Bucksport that’s our home base this time of year. Before we do, though, I want to walk through the New Brunswick Botanical Garden. All along the St. John River valley I couldn’t help but notice the gardens and lawns. Everything is trimmed so neatly, and sometimes the shrubs are clipped into recognizable shapes: an airplane, a gnome, a buffalo. What’s going on? Sure enough, the Botanical Garden has some of this elaborate topiary, too. Plants are growing in the shapes of geese, insects, and fanciful creatures. While there, we meet an artisan in a garden studio, a wood carver named Luc Cyr. (Actually, he says, he prefers the term “whittler” or the Acadian “gosseux.”) Cyr shows us a stack of his recent carvings of the Canadian emblem, the sugar maple leaf, which he made from scrap cedar wood that comes from a mill in Maine. He gives me one of the small carved blocks as a memento, and I’m so happy to have it. The wooden leaf is definitely not a roadside oddity, but a little piece of Maine and Canada to remind me of our quirky, border-hopping weekend in the North.