What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
The depth of history, all the things that happened along the northern border, from the Age of Discovery to colonization to the timber trade to the ice trade — which was incredible to read about — Lewis and Clark, James Polk and the Oregon Treaty. I took U.S. history. I’m a reader. But I didn’t understand how America was created piece by piece. It was exciting, because it happens chronologically from east to west, literally mile by mile, from Maine to the Northern plains to the Pacific. Every hundred miles, you’re covering a decade of U.S. history.
[Read Porter Fox’s account of a canoe trip along the U.S.-Canada border]
The thing that really hit me was how Jefferson planned Western expansion so long ago, and how they planned to dupe the Native American tribes that were living there. They knew they could not conquer them at that time, militarily, so they created a strategy where they didn’t have to fight them on the battlefield; they could just trick them into signing these treaties — more than 300 of them — and just ignore the treaties. The more I got into it, the more disbelief I felt about this country we call home.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
I set out to write a book about the border. I was researching surveys and the history of how it was created. But from the get-go, I started wandering away from the border, staying within about 100 miles of it. I discovered this concept of the northland, this singular region in the U.S., which I hadn’t read about before. I realized it was this giant swath of territory that’s defined by climate, very old ethnic communities — many of which descended from the first settlers — massive wildernesses and roadless areas. I found so many similarities across the region. I started meeting some characters and going deep into the woods and up these rivers. It went from being a border book to more like “Great Plains,” by Ian Frazier; more of a set piece about a region.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
Samuel de Champlain. He was the first character I read about, just getting ready to start the trip. I dove so deep. He was a Renaissance man at the tail end of the Renaissance. He was a humanist who had a vision of creating a new world from the ashes of what France and even Europe had become at that point, in the late 1500s or early 1600s.
He could write and sketch. He started a dinner club, during the third year of his settlement in America. People were dying left and right of scurvy and whatnot, and to boost morale he starts this club. Whoever cooked the best meal got some kind of reward. People went scavenging through swamps for something to add a little flavor to their meal.