A warm hand of greeting to our friends in the “Great White North”

Pack the parka and the snowshoes and throw in a six-pack for good measure as we travel to Canada, a place many call the “Great White North” because of its vast expanse of snow and wilderness. The term was also used as the title for a Canadian comedy sketch about living in Canada in the early ‘80s by two comedians calling themselves the McKenzie brothers.


Canada is big. It is the second largest country in the world by landmass. To see its border on a map run from one end of the United States’ northern exterior to the other reinforces this and, most assuredly, tells us we’re not alone. Yet, despite its size, Canada remains one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. From my home in Starboard looking into the Gulf of Maine, I don’t see anything white and big, nor Russia for that matter, but I do see a small blinking glimpse of Canadian territory.

Ray Hennesey, photo

The heartbeat flash of light coming from Machias Seal Island is like seeing Morse code in light saying, “Here I am,” over and over again. The Canadian lighthouse on that small hump of rock is visible day or night, if the weather cooperates. The island is also a prime nesting spot for the Atlantic Puffin and a number of other sea birds. And, as I would quickly learn, the island’s ownership can be cause for some heated discussions here Downeast.

Travel from Starboard to Canada by land takes about an hour, going through the town of Lubec onto Campobello Island— once summer home of Franklin D. Roosevelt— or it is accessible through the city of Calais into New Brunswick. Both border crossings are small, easy to navigate and friendly. Overall, I believe the border between the U.S. and Canada is a quiet one, and I am not alone in that view. In his new book, Northland, author Porter Fox calls the boundary the “forgotten border.”

This border is so big, long and quiet that we tend to forget about it. The landscape and everything that goes with it seems to meld all together and can easily heighten a tendency of taking each other for granted, as family or relatives— the good kind— do sometimes. Governments may bump heads from time to time, but the people with which we share this continent are quite content to cross lines, shake hands and watch a hockey game or two together over a couple of beers, or not. Eh?

My introduction to Canada was not by way of Montreal, Quebec or even New Brunswick, but via Nova Scotia and the Yukon Territory. A Maine vacation in 1984 resulted in a ferry ride to Nova Scotia and a week of driving its eastern edge from Yarmouth up into Cape Breton. The trip was long but very memorable. In the villages, houses would sometimes sport different colors, one after the other. First a blue house, then a yellow, green or red, with seven to nine houses in total, and each village surrounded a working wharf placed in a small harbor.

Peggy’s Cove was a highlight, and so were the tall ships I was lucky enough to see. But it was Cape Breton that bestowed a magical trance on me as I walked its coastline, hiked the interior, ate its food and relished the time spent there.  Everyone I met was friendly, talkative and really wanted to know who you are, where you live, and most importantly, how you’re doing. It seems similar to when I first arrived Downeast. The people here and in Canada are friendly, attentive and take each day as it comes, no better, no worse.

Dogsledding in the Yukon Territory did bring some of the white stuff my way. On a six-day adventure in 2010, I mushed a dog team across 125 miles of the most pristine land I have ever seen. Nothing man-made was out there, except for two small cabins along our route where we took refuge for a couple of nights. With daytime mushing temperatures of -30 degrees and a nighttime temp of -45 degrees, I can say at this point in my life, all 61 years of it, this trip was the most challenging physical activity I have ever done.

Living in this extreme environment, for one day or six, is a mind-boggling experience. Pulling water from a frozen river, tending to and feeding the dogs first, then sitting down to eat and actually tasting food, the absence of color, just ice and more ice, seeing the air bend and a night sky that speaks in color are just a few of the things I experienced. This challenging journey showed me how unblemished nature can soothe the soul, and make one feel so alive.

Canada is as beautiful as it is big and offers much in the way of state-of-the art cities and everything that comes with them— museums, restaurants, and gorgeous skylines. Yet, for the traveler looking to take that step back into time and see what explorers witnessed centuries ago, it is easy to see why the moniker “Great White North” is still used today. The vast, unspoiled land sits pretty much in the backyard of those Canadian cities and goes on and on, in a sense, forever.

Canada is also a friend, confidant, and a partner to the United States when it comes to all things lived and shared between neighbors.  Commerce, natural resources, protection, loyalty and people are the things that make countries great and unite them.  Without attention, these same attributes can sometimes drive them apart. Any relationship takes work and compromise from both sides of the border to insure the friendship between the U.S. and Canada remains a vital and positive one, not only from a geopolitical standpoint, but here Downeast as well.

In today’s fragile chaotic clip of life, the one thing I believe that always provides a sense of calm is knowing that someone will be there for you — be it family, a friend or a neighbor. There is nothing better than a warm hand of greeting or even that sometimes finger-pointing friend who will tell you the hard truth when it’s required. One thing I am certain of: Without friends, the world can be a cruel place to work and live. It is nice to know our friends in the “Great White North” still have their doors open and, most assuredly, will leave the light on for us.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.