Longtime POWDER Features Editor Porter Fox set out on a 4,000-mile journey two years ago to tell the story of the oft-forgotten northern border of the U.S. His travels and findings can be found in his latest book, Northland. In traversing the border lands, he passed through ski country in New England, Michigan, Montana, Idaho, and Washington state. As someone who is also the author of DEEP: The Story of Skiing and The Future of Snow, Fox has seen the transformation of these landscapes through the years and their importance in skiers’ lives, not only as an ecosystem but a culture.
Tonight at Seattle’s iconic Elliot Bay Book Company, Fox will share accounts of his sojourn with a ski-centric twist as moderated by POWDER. Before doing so, we caught up with the 20-year POWDER staffer to hear his thoughts on his book as it relates to skiing.
POWDER: What signs of skiing did you find on your travels through the northland?
Porter Fox: There were plenty. Starting in the East at resorts like Sugarloaf, Sunday River, Jay Peak, and Stowe. The closer you get to the northern border, the colder it gets, so some of our best resorts back East are just a few miles from the northern border. Same goes in the Midwest with all of Michigan and the UP’s small resorts and out West with hills like Turner Mountain, Whitefish, Schweitzer, Stevens Pass, and Mount Baker. Back in the day, this was where folks connected to the 10th Mountain Division and European instructors went to survey possible ski hills. They were then connected to train systems coming out of New York, Boston, Denver, and Seattle, making them some of the most popular early resorts in America.
How does ski culture change the farther north you go in the U.S.?
Much of the northland is still populated by the same ethnic communities who settled it. In Maine, you find a strong French influence at ski clubs and resorts. In the Midwest, there are a lot of Scandinavian communities--like a multitude of Nordic centers. From Montana to Washington, you find Russian and German populations that initially settled in the East then moved West. It’s still old country up there that has somehow dodged much of the fast-paced social and cultural change (read: the internet) that has swept the rest of the country.
How many miles did you travel? And how many days were you out on the road in preparation for writing this book?
I traveled pretty much every mile of the border and doubled back on a few sections. Maybe 6,000 miles total. I scheduled trips to bite off one chunk at a time and allowed time to go home and research that section. I think I spent four to five months on the road over a period of three years.
You have said this trip allowed you to see how America was created chronologically from east to west, seeing evidence of various decades every hundred miles. Can you explain that?
There is a piece of history attached to every mile of the northern border. It starts with the Age of Discovery, British colonies and the American Revolution in the East--and stretches west through the Indian Wars, Lewis and Clark, and Westward Expansion to Oregon Country and the completion of the Lower 48. Following the line in that direction lended a natural progression to the story. I was very surprised by some of the history that I dug up: Etienne Brulé’s discovery of the Great Lakes in the early 1600s; Ben Franklin’s erroneous map in Paris that much of the northern border follows; the military superiority of the Sioux tribe over what would be one day be one-fifth of America; how close the northern border came to running across the 54th parallel and including most of Canada. Following the northern border not only redefined the physical shape of this country for me, it filled in many blanks regarding how this country actually came to be.
Can you ski the actual border?
I had a very interesting conversation with a Customs and Border Protection agent in Glacier National Park who said that I could hike, ski or snowmobile “the cut” along the line as long as I didn’t cross it. The cut is a 20-foot wide swath chainsawed through thousands of miles of forests on the northern border. In Glacier National Park, it accesses peaks you can’t get to any other way. Same goes in North Cascades National Park. It offers incredible access--a clear shot to 8,000-foot peaks and hundreds of routes that have probably never been skied before. So that’s been on my mind…
How is climate change affecting the northern reaches of America compared to the rest of the country?
Unfortunately, climate change is progressing far faster in northern latitudes than it is in the south. What that translates to is more winter rain on northern ranges, a later beginning to the season and earlier springs. Spring snowpack depths are already down 20 percent in the Rockies. The situation is worse in the Northern Rockies and warming is more than twice as fast in northern coastal ranges like the Cascades and Canada’s Coast Mountains. You can already see dwindling snowpacks affecting opening and closing dates of northland ski resorts. More importantly, ranchers and farmers downstream of these mountains, as well as major water districts, are facing water shortages.
Why do you think so little attention is paid to this lesser known but larger U. S. border?
The southern border gets all of the headlines, but the northernmost border is more than twice as long and is far more porous. The northern border is the longest international boundary in the world and also the busiest: $1.6 billion and 400,000 people legally cross the northern boundary every day. I think it gets less attention because it is less populated--10 percent of Americans live in the northland; 90 percent of Canadians live within 100 miles of their southern border--and because there is no perceived threat from our neighbor to the north. Canada is one of our oldest and most reliable allies, not to mention our number-two trading partner. (Though you might not realize that if you read headlines about tariffs and border management today.) All of that has led the U.S. to talk the northern border for granted.
How long did this book take to research and write? When did you know you had enough to start writing?
I was supposed to finish the book in under two years but it ended up taking more like three and a half. Once I got into some of these interesting historical threads and began wandering through the immense wildernesses along the border, I knew I couldn’t stop until I had the whole story. There was just so much travel. And again, so much history that I had never read about before, and I think that many people have never heard of. It was impossible to breeze over LaSalle’s construction of the first schooner in the Upper Great Lakes in the middle of the winter without finding every book on the subject and deep-diving into the life of that madman.
Do you keep travel journals and notes whenever you travel or just when you're traveling for a specific project?
I do. I use my laptop now because it is so much easier to cut and paste and look things up. I force myself to write for at least an hour or two every day I’m on the road. Human memory starts to fade after about 24 hours, and relevant details that really bring a scene or character to life starts to fade away. It’s just not possible to write your best work if you don’t get it down right away. I also carry a notebook in case I don’t have my laptop, so I can write shorthand and create prompts to write about later.
You were an editor at POWDER for 19 years, teach at Columbia University, and edit a travel writing journal, called Nowhere. How do you balance the demands of these ventures with your own traveling, skiing, and writing?
It’s actually quite symbiotic. Most of the work I do for Nowhere and Columbia is editing. The work I did for POWDER and continue to do for Nowhere is primarily editing. I probably edit 50 to 70 travel features a year. It is such a terrific learning tool, to relearn the craft that I’ve been working on for many years. After editing and teaching and pointing out to students what works and what does not work, which can be surprisingly black-and-white at times, I then go back to my manuscript and can see what needs to be changed. It’s definitely a busy schedule, but it doesn’t feel busy when you enjoy it as much as I do.
In your book, Northland, you write that "to northlanders, nature is not a thing you go see, it is the place you live." You live in New York but were raised in Maine. How do you balance these different landscapes and ways of being in the world? Do you prefer one over the other?
I got out of the city a lot. My wife and I built a couple of cabins in the Catskills, two hours from New York and under an hour from four great ski resorts. We spend many weekends up there and many others canoeing and camping with friends up north. I couldn’t live in the northland after growing up there--18 years was good for me. But I couldn’t live in the city without being able to get back into the wilderness like that. The balance of the two is perfect.
To buy and learn more about the book and read and listen to interviews from The New York Times and NPR with Porter Fox, go here.