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Howard Frank Mosher
From North Country
(Houghton Mifflin, 1997)

Flying the Border With Ti René

Buoyed up on its bright aluminum pontoons, Ti René's ancient yellow de Havilland Beaver bush plane taxied in wide ellipses in front of his camp on the remote Quebec-border pond he's used for the past forty years as a base. Then we were ripping over the water straight into the early moming wind and lifting off the surface like some primitive reptile trying to fly for the first time. The vast woods and water of northern Maine and southern Quebec spread out below us like a gigantic blue and green jigsaw puzzle, stretching as far as I could see in every direction.

I'd met Ti René late the night before in a Quebec roadhouse with a wide open topless bar attached, where I'd stopped for a beer. The bartender had recommended him to me as an "outlaw" Quebecois bush pilot, a notorious smuggler, who might take me up for a bird's-eye view of the border the next morning.

"No problem," Ti René said between joking conversations in French with strippers young enough to be his daughters. "Just don't write where you found me, to Ti René's late name."

René gave a great booming laugh. At six foot six and somewhat over three hundred pounds, he seemed to derive great pleasure from the irony of his nickname, Ti, which is French Canadian for "Junior" or "little" -- Little René!

Now, as we continued to climb higher, I pointed down at a narrow cut through the trees far below. "Is that the border?" I called out over the engine noise.

"The what?" René shouted.

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See other excerpts from North Country:
  • "Notes From the Upper Peninsula"
  • "A North Country Love Story"
  • "The border."

    "Oh, that -- " with a contemptuous wave of one huge hand. "Yes. But the air is free, there is no border up here. Still, I will give you a good look at the line on the ground, eh?"

    With a wicked grin, René abruptly rolled the de Havilland over onto its side, pointed his left wing tip at the boundary and plummeted down toward it. The landscape tilted sickeningly as it rose to meet us. But René laughed and whacked my knee with his ham of a hand and shouted, "Look off at the horizon and the dizziness will pass! Ti likes to play with the plane, eh?"

    On the way back up, after tracking the border a hundred or so feet above the trees for a few miles, then losing sight of it altogether in a morass of spruce swamps and beaver ponds, René said dismissively, "Canada, the U.S., the U.S., Canada -- it is all about the same, right? You know what the line here is called: the friendliest border in the world. I think so myself."

    The border, as it turned out, has run through René's family like a genealogical line for the past three generations. Like many another turn-of-the-century Quebecois farmer, his grandfather emigrated to northern New England and bought a small, rundown dairy operation. He milked a dozen cows, did a little carpentry and lumbering for his neighbors, played his fiddle at local barn dances, and, during Prohibition, augmented his income by running Canadian whiskey across the line in a Model A with a homemade truck bed attached. Then grandpere had an inspiration. He traded one of his woodlots for a broken-down biplane, coaxed it into running order, removed the wheels and added a pair of pontoons, and began smuggling whiskey over the border in considerable quantities.

    Was coming to the States a good move for his grandfather? Oh, sure, René said. Back then a hard-working French Canadian immigrant family could, with a bit of ingenuity, flourish in the U.S. And grandpere had had more than a tad of ingenuity. Both René and his father were educated with money his grandfather saved from those whiskey runs in the biplane. Now, though, he told me, Quebecois farmers were staying put. With their handsome government subsidies, dairymen in Canada were doing much better, for the most part, than their beleaguered counterparts in New England.

    René's grandpere began taking him up in the plane when René was five years old. Since then he has flown thousands of wilderness sorties on both sides of the border that he pretends to ignore. He's ferried into the bush game wardens, fire wardens, timber cruisers, guides, newspaper reporters, fly fishermen, backpackers, emergency medical teams, firefighters, paper company executives preparing publicity brochures, and "Earth First!" activists eager to photograph the devastation wreaked by the paper companies' clearcutting. He's flown fish-stocking planes and big cumbersome "water bombs," -- bright orange firefighting planes that lug thousands of gallons of water in gigantic bulbous compartments attached to their fuselages. He's put in several stints as a crop duster over Aroostook County potato fields, has flown nonstop, except to gas up, from dawn to dusk, day after day, searching for lost hikers, and has hired out his services to U.S. Border Patrol agents to comb the border terrain for illegal aliens and to Mounties in search of escaped murderers.

    In the winter, Ti René swaps his pontoons for a pair of wide skis and lands and takes off from frozen lakes and ponds, supplying outback trappers, timber cruisers, and lumberers with necessities. And though some customs authorities raise an eyebrow when you mention René, who has been known to carry a few undeclared cases of Molson's Export or Seagram's over the line, he has an unimpeachable reputation as a skillful and safe seat-of-the-pants bush pilot, who can fly anywhere without instrumentation, navigating entirely by maintaining sight with ground features and landing wherever a bush plane can land, as well as a few places where, according to the laws of physics, one shouldn't be able to. During his forty-five-year flying career, René told me, he's landed on some ponds so small that, in order to get the necessary taxiing distance to take off again, he's had to hitch his plane to a shoreline spruce tree by a stout hawser, rev up the engine until the hawser hums with the tension, then pull the slipknot and use the plane's lurching leap forward as momentum to take off from water "too small to take off from" -- a strategy he learned from his grandfather.

    * * *

    This morning I accompanied René to Portland, where he picked up a rebuilt log-skidder transmission (and six cases of American beer) to deliver to a lumber camp in Quebec.

    "Does anyone ever bother you about bringing booze over the border?" I shouted once we were aloft again.

    René laughed. "No problem. Look, Ti René is no criminal. A judge would laugh such a case out of court, you know, arresting René over a few bottles of beer, a small present for his friends across the friendliest border in the world."

    As we traced the border back toward René's base, I asked him if he thought Quebec would sooner or later secede from Canada. He shrugged. "Who knows? Very possibly. But only consider, my friend. In many ways Quebec has already, for all practical purposes, seceded. French is now the official language of all our public schools and the language spoken in the Parliament buildings in Quebec. Furthermore, as you drive through most of the province, you will note that the flag you see flown, including over government buildings, is the fleur-de-lis, the Quebec flag. So, now that we have such great cultural and linguistic and yes, political, autonomy, it may not be wise to cut our last economic ties with the rest of Canada. True, the federal taxes are steep. But we have wonderful medical care, care for the elderly, educational benefits -- both my brother, a doctor, and I attended the University of Quebec for next to nothing, and our grandfather paid our living expenses while we were at college. Our farms are alive and healthy, our social programs among the best in the world. Driving through Quebec you will not see the sad poverty that characterizes the little mill towns just across the border in northern New England. In Quebec, the yards have colorful flowers in them. In Maine and New Hampshire and Vermont, many have junk cars on wood blocks and old refrigerators! All this is something we want to jeopardize for national pride, to call ourselves a nation? René hopes not! Will we, though? He fears that sooner or later we may. If so, it will be a mistake."

    Shortly before we landed, I asked René what he liked best about flying a bush plane for a living. "Why do I do this?" he said with a chuckle. "Because here, you see, I am free. Look. The law says you cannot fly a bottle of beer over a line that scarcely exists except on a map. Now what does such a law mean to me? Up here in the air" -- René snapped his fingers -- "not that much. Man's law! Petty regulations. Now God's law. That René makes every effort to obey to the letter. He is not always successful. But that is what he strives for."

    I asked René for an example of God's law. He laughed and said he knew of just one: "Treat other people the way you'd like to be treated."

    On that note, without warning, René lifted the big metal steering rudder up in its housing and flipped it smack into my lap. Before I knew it, I was at the controls, feeling all the throbbing power of that ancient de Havilland Beaver in my hands.

    "Almost as good as sex!" René hollered. "But not quite."

    After a few minutes he took the controls back. "So," he laughed, "you have flown a bush plane, and gone on a smuggling run with Ti René, and lived to tell about it. To write about it even. Well, write this: This wilderness we have flown over? This border country? Write that it is a hard place to make a living, but a good place to live! And write that it is beautiful, eh? Very beautiful, but ever so fragile as well. Write that once gone, it does not come back again."

    Copyright © 1997 by Howard Frank Mosher. All rights reserved.
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