A great deal of the United States and Canada is separated by water. In the West, Vancouver Island shares the Juan De Fuca Strait with Washington State. In mid-continent, that border divides the Great Lakes. The St. Johns River, smaller in volume perhaps, but just as effective, separates the wild’s of northern Maine from the Canadian Province of New Brunswick. Politically that is. A man-made line may divide the Voici the Valley Cultureway, but its French flavor remains very much intact.
About Voici the Valley Cultureway
The St John River begins in northern Maine and travels 435 miles until it pours into the Bay of Fundy. About 100 of those miles act as the international border, from St. Francis to Hamlin. This is the heart of Acadian culture in Maine. Residents are descended from the French, Scots, Irish and native peoples that arrived in the 1780s. They were fleeing the more volatile coasts of what are now New England and the Canadian Maritimes.
This is a place where French is spoken around the dinner table just as often as English, where a line drawn by governments has separated Postal Codes from Zip Codes, but has not divided a people. Held together by language and a strong Catholic faith, the Maine Acadians are proud of their heritage. In many ways they are dual citizens without the paperwork, having strong business and social ties with Quebec and New Brunswick, but proud to be called Maine Acadians. Even the name “Voici the Valley” is bi-lingual, meaning “here is the valley.”
Roughly 55,000 people live on the Canadian side of the St. John’s River, and 15,000 on the Maine side. The largest U.S. towns, all international border entries, are Van Buren, Madawaska and Fort Kent. Edmundston, New Brunswick is the largest Canadian town. Saint Leonard, New Brunswick actually shares a close relationship with Van Buren, holding the annual “Festival des deux rives” and even sharing a municipal flag.
Touring Voici the Valley Cultureway
Exploring this delightfully French region is an adventure. It is self-drive, meaning you go at your own pace, stopping when and where you want. The main roadway is sort of a lazy-eight that crosses the international border multiple times along the way. The Down River Tour covers the East, while the Up River Tour takes you through the western half of the valley. The “Voici the Valley Audio Story and Guide”, made up of an 80 minute documentary CD and a 28-page written guide, is available to help you on your way.
Along your journey you’ll find vast acres of farmland, much of it devoted to the potato, forests, historic buildings and scenic river views. Summers are short and on the cool side, rarely getting above 70 degrees F. Winters see over 100 inches of snow and tend to stay below the freezing mark. It is the waning days of summer, when the hardwood trees don their red and gold leaves that are the most colorful.
Historic Sights Along the Way
Along your journey you will find a number of historic remnants of the Voici the Valley’s sometimes turbulent past. The Fort Kent blockhouse, a National Historic Landmark, is what remains of a fort that participated in the Bloodless Aroostook War. Not a shot was fired in this border depute between the United States and Britain, eventually ended by treaty. Also in Fort Kent is a museum inside of a one storey railroad station that was in service from 1902 until 1979. It was at the northern end of the Fish River Railroad and later became a stop on the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad.
Heading into Madawaska you will find St. David parish. It is here that the first Acadians arrived into the valley. The site is commemorated by a large marble cross, put up in 1922. It replaced the well worn original wooden cross, circa 1785. The Tante Blanche Museum, housed in a log cabin, and St. David Catholic Church are also part of the parish. Built in 1911 and displaying a combination of Baroque and Renaissance architectural styles, this church replaced the original, built in 1871. The traditional Acadian Mass, in French, is still celebrated regularly.
The Notre-Dame-du-Mont Carmel is in the town of Lille. Built in 1909, the Baroque style structure was nominated to be on the National Register. It is no longer in use, but is being restored as a historic site. In Keegan, an authentic Acadian Village, already on the National Register, is a folk museum complex made up of various historic buildings representing life in the old days. Among them are a blacksmith shop, general store, railroad car house and a general store. Cultural events, such as Acadian Day and Native American Day are held here.
Two historic homes, one the Vital Violette House circa 1850, located in Lille and the Michaud House, circa 1880 in Van Buren, are also of note. The Violette House, on the National Historic Register, is currently dismantled, but the site and its foundation may be seen. The Michaud House a Queen-Anne styled beauty from 1880 is privately owned and operates as a bed and breakfast.
A Taste of Acadia
Early spring brings the tapping of the sugar maple trees in anticipation of sweet syrup poured on buckwheat pancakes. Maple sugar candy, taffy and baked goods are local favorites. Reminiscent of a time when the settlers lived off the land, Acadians still harvest dandelion greens, fiddlehead ferns and various wild berries to eat on their own or to make into herbal teas and wines.
Pastries, whether of the sweet or savory variety, are a staple of Acadian cooking. Meat pies using beef, pork or chicken and sometimes potato are a favorite. A larger version, the pot-en-pot, is a giant meat pie that is layered and baked in a roasting pan. The traditional version uses wild game, such as venison or rabbit, along with generous sprinklings of cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Sweet treats include beignets, which in Acadia are preferred cooked in maple syrup. Sort of an unruly donut, this mixture of sweet batter and bits of fruit are deep fried until golden. Delightfully delicious.
Crossing the Border
Crossing the border in Voici the Valley is fairly painless, but it is still an international boundary. A passport is your best bet, whether you are a Canadian or United States citizen. If you are a foreign national from any other country it is mandatory. Other acceptable forms of identification are the NEXUS card, a system that pre-screens travelers for easy cross-border travel, or the U.S. Passport Card, allowing border crossings by water or land, but not by air.
Vehicle registration may be asked for. If you are traveling with children, make sure you have passports and the proper paperwork for them as well, especially if they are traveling with only one parent. If you are traveling with your dog or cat, have a veterinarian health certificate and proof of current rabies vaccine available.
You may be asked if you have any goods to declare. Border guards in this part of the country are familiar with the multiple crossings of the Voici the Valley Cultureway, but they still may ask. Just answer with a smile and you’ll soon be on to your next adventure.