can flagnameplate us flag
AT NATURE'S MERCY

In the early decades of this century, crews traveled to less accessible sections of the boundary with pack horses, mules and wagons.

They used axes, machetes and handsaws to maintain the vista. The work was slow and back-breaking. Over the last quarter century, modern machinery has greatly facilitated clearing operations.

Materials are flown in by helicopters, or carried over land in all-terrain vehicles. Bush and trees are cleared with chain saws and bulldozers. Modern technology has made jobs easier.

But some things don't change. Occasionally, and in very remote areas, crews still mix cement on large pieces of canvas.

Mosquitoes, blackflies, "noseeums," and deer flies still plague the work crews. And nature doesn't always cooperate - torrential rains can create mud-clogged roads that can halt the work for weeks.

(From IBC publicity)

Tidy Border, Good Neighbors
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on site
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A survey party, Baldwin's Mills, Quebec, 1906
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ROSS MURRAY
One day in class, a teacher told Carl Gustafson's daughter that Canada and the United States were separated by an invisible boundary. Not so, said the girl. If that was the case, her father had been working for a fantasy the last 30 years.

Gustafson, an old Beebe boy, is a senior field officer with the International Boundary Commission, a body created in 1925 by the two countries to maintain a clear 20-foot-wide strip through brush, trees, swamp, and farmland along the 5526-mile border. The commission also maintains boundary markers along Canada's waterways.

This past summer, Gustafson was back in the Memphremagog area with his crew, repairing border monuments near Highwater and Sutton. Although he has travelled across the country - and up to the Alaska-British Columbia border - this was the first time Gustafson had been working on this part of the Townships line since 1967.

Crew
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Carl Gustafson (left) & crew in 1999

"Compared to different parts of the country where there's a lot of development, the landscape has been maintained pretty well," said Gustafson during a recent visit. "What makes this part of the boundary unique is the buildings right on the line [in the Three Villages area]. Unless it's in the public interest, we prefer to keep the boundary clear."

The son of United Church minister Rev. Carl Gustafson, who served in Beebe at the time, Carl Gustafson joined a survey crew in 1962 when they were passing through the region. After that summer, he was offered a full-time job after he got his engineering degree. He bit. Now he's one of the commission's most experienced field officers.

With that experience comes an encyclopedic knowledge not only of the history of the boundary but also the importance of maintaining what's sometimes called "a visible line between friendly neighbors."

"There are some Americans and Canadians who wouldn't necessarily say we're friends. That's why we use the phrase 'friendly neighbors,' " he said.

The other phrase favored by the commission is "undefended - but not uncared for."

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Grooming the border

Much of the commission's work involves not only clearing away brush and trees that have grown up within the boundary strip between inspections - usually done at 10-year intervals in this area; 50 years on the Alaska border - but also ensuring that the boundary markers laid out every mile or so haven't been moved.

"We may find one or two points in positions that don't agree with anything else," said Gustafson. "If a marker is off 14 feet, we put it back in its original position."

Fourteen feet isn't a lot of space along two vast countries. But that's not the point, says Gustafson.

"When you consider the cost of war between countries, it's a small price to pay for assurance of a peaceful existence," he pointed out.

In fact, boundary disputes have caused conflict between what was then British North America, including the Aroostook War of 1838 over disputed territory between Maine and New Brunswick.

The Canadian portion for the boundary commission amounts to around $200,000 a year. Since 1925, only $5 million has been spent by the Canadian government on boundary maintenance.

Originally, border inspections were carried out by joint Canadian-American teams because, as Gustafson points out, "we weren't too sure about each other." Today, the Americans and Canadians work separately. "We've been doing it so long we implicitly trust each other."

When Gustafson joined the survey team in 1962, the crews lived in tents in the field. That's still done in more remote areas but this summer, Gustafson's crew stayed at the Imperial Motel in Stanstead and at a lodge in Sutton.

Part of the work this year was rebuilding boundary markers between Memphremagog and Lake Champlain. This is an easy stretch of boundary to work on because it was groomed by the Americans over the past six years. Grooming involves grading the 20-foot strip and reseeding it. While this is a costly venture in itself, it will save money in the long run because survey crews won't have to cut down trees and clear shrubs; they'll just mow the lawn.

So far only about 600 miles of border have been groomed.

"Essentially, all the easy parts have been done," said Gustafson.

And people like him will be keeping an eye on the rest.

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posted 10/27/99

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