The Coldest War

Machias Seal Island
Courtesy of

In the chilly coastal waters off Cutler, America’s oldest border skirmish continues apace.

By Jesse Ellison
Machias Seal Island lies 10 miles off the Maine coast, a lonely outcrop of rock and scrub in a 277-square-mile swath of ocean known to mariners and mapmakers as the “gray zone,” a rich fishing ground that the U.S. and Canada both claim to own. The Yankee and Canuck fishermen who share these disputed waters — and who ostensibly follow their home country’s rules — haven’t always gotten along, and tensions tend to rise and fall with the market value of their catch. A couple of years back, with lobsters prices skyrocketing and more people fishing the gray zone than ever before, lobstermen from both sides accused each other of cutting lines, stealing gear, and making death threats. A 61-year-old American fisherman warned a Canadian patrol boat that he was readying to ram it. The U.S. side has suffered the worst casualty so far: a decade ago, a Mainer got his thumb ripped off while trying to free his traps from Canadian lines.

A quick history lesson: In 1783, the Treaty of Paris settled the Revolutionary War, but it left unanswered a host of questions about what’s now the Maine–New Brunswick border. In 1820, when Maine became a state, its government became intensely interested in defining its boundary as far north as it could. A cold war — the so-called Aroostook War — ensued, with militia mobilizations and cross-border arrests eventually leading to high-level diplomatic talks. The resulting treaty, signed 175 years ago, determined the current crooked shape of northern Maine and should have put tensions permanently to bed — except that it failed to account for tiny Machias Seal Island (and the smaller, adjacent, and even less hospitable North Rock).

light house Machias Seal Island
Illustration by Gregor Forster c/o

New Brunswickers built a lighthouse on Machias Seal Island in 1832, and today, it’s still manned year-round by the Canadian Coast Guard. Even though the light’s automated, the Canadian government contends their presence earns them something like international squatters’ rights. The U.S., meanwhile, has long argued that boundary rules in the Treaty of Paris make the island American. And locals are quick to point out that Machias Seal Island is closer to Maine than it is to Canada, by about 2 miles.

A single American boat, out of Cutler, charters trips to the island. Its captain, Andrew Patterson, started plying the gray zone (or grey zone, depending whose side you’re on) 30 years ago, taking visitors out to see the thousands of puffins that nest on the treeless slab of rock. “We just let the Canadians borrow it,” Patterson’s first mate, Brandon Guerra, jokes with passengers — though he admits he wouldn’t make that joke in the presence of Canadians. “I wouldn’t be caught dead,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t come back from the island if I said that out there.”

Patterson recalls that Barna Norton, who used to run a tour boat from Jonesport, would make a show of planting an American flag on the island every Fourth of July, right in front of a Canadian Coast Guard sign. Though not as theatrical, Patterson gets the sentiment. “I firmly believe it’s a U.S. island,” he says, “but it’s obviously not going to be settled. Heaven forbid oil or natural gas were found — something where money was really involved.”

Patriotism aside, Patterson doesn’t much mind the present arrangement. If the border ever gets resolved, he worries, the island might become like other puffin sanctuaries — off limits to visitors. Presently, the Canadian Wildlife Service manages research on the island and allows 15 visitors from the U.S. and 15 from Canada daily (no passports necessary), and everyone seems content not to rock the boat amid the ongoing territorial dispute. If the claim were settled, Patterson might find himself out of business — to say nothing of local fishermen on the losing side, at a time when warming waters are pushing the heart of Maine’s lobster fishery farther north and closer to the island.

“This tension, this dispute, is what gives us this access,” Patterson says. “When people ask me who owns Machias Seal Island and I don’t feel like getting into it, I just roll my eyes and say, ‘The birds own it.’ ”

puffin Machias Seal Island

How to Alight on Machias Seal Island

Andrew Patterson’s Bold Coast Charter Company wraps up its tour schedule in August, as the puffin colony leaves for open water once young puffins have fledged. Bookings for summer 2018 tours begin in January and tend to sell out by spring. 207-259-4484.