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October 1998

Canada’s Appalachian Trail

Who says the Appalachian Trail has to stop in Maine? Certainly not some plucky Canadians, who're extending the long-trail concept 600 more miles into their homeland.

It wasn’t the mud. It wasn’t the snow, the ice, or the runoff. It wasn’t even that the four were melded together into a hellish concoction that clogged the trail all the way up the side of New Brunswick’s Mt. Carleton.

It was knowing I’d been morphed into a Looney Tune by a Mother Nature determined to strip me of any last shred of dignity.

I could handle the occasional one legged, crotch-smacking drop through the snow crust, reminding myself that I’ve had all the children I want in this lifetime as I heaved back out, my boot flooding with ice water just to top off the indignity. I could tell myself this was the kind of stuff any intrepid backpacker could take in stride.

What I couldn’t rationalize was a powerful sense of the ridiculous as I tiptoed over the snow like the Sugar Plum Fairy, only to be catapulted into a plunging stagger followed by a backward toe skid and curtsy. It’s hard to feel intrepid when you’re doing slapstick.

And my reward when I made it to the summit? A wall of fog. The same fog that three days earlier at the start of the trail in Mars Hill, Maine, had wrapped its clammy grip around me like a curse that showed no sign of lifting. I took solace in knowing I wasn’t there for the view. I was there for the trail, the new International Appalachian Trail slated to stretch some 620 miles from Maine into Canada by Earth Day 2000. When complete the IAT will run from Baxter State Park 100 miles across the northeastern corner of Maine to the Canadian border, 170 miles across northern New Brunswick, then 350 miles through the Gaspß Peninsula of eastern Quebec to the breathtaking cliffs of Cape Gaspß. At least that’s the plan, but more about that in a minute.

The most extensive new trail in the Appalachian Mountains since the 2,150-mile Appalachian Trail became reality in 1937, the IAT will make hikers think anew about the Appalachian range and the meaning of a shared corridor of plant and animal life that can’t be contained by national borders. Its creators hope it will beckon as the logical extension that must be followed to the Appalachian mountains’ saltwater finale.

The International Appalachian Trail/Sentier International des Appalaches is the brainchild of former Maine Commissioner of Conservation Dick Anderson, who was struck with the idea, quite naturally, while mired in freeway traffic. “Most Americans see Maine as the end of the line,” he says. “But it isn’t. The Appalachian Mountains, the forests, the birds, the animals, they all continue into Canada. That’s when it hit me, and I mean slammed me back in my seat: The best way to show this vast shared biological system is for people to walk through it. We should build an international extension to the Appalachian Trail.”

The plans were announced on April 22, Earth Day, 1994, with a six-year deadline that must have seemed a tad optimistic, considering there were two countries involved; two languages; layer upon layer of national, state, and provincial bureaucracy; four separate park authorities; and scores of private landowners whose receptivity ranged from, “How can we help?” to, “It ain’t gonna happen.”

But it is happening. Despite having committee directors and members in two countries-president Anderson lives in Maine and other officers in Quebec and New Brunswick-the IAT is on schedule to open by April 2000.

Ironically the strongest volunteer turnout as well as the most opposition to the trail, was on the American side of the border.

The original idea was to start the IAT where the AT now ends, at the thru-hiker’s holy grail, Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine. But both the Appalachian Trail Conference, which manages the AT, and Baxter management officials balked. While the ATC welcomed the IAT as a new trail, the group felt a direct continuation of the AT would diminish either its historic importance or its integrity as a Georgia-to-Maine trail. Nor did they want to be saddled with IAT maintenance responsibilities or be drawn into management disputes; some sections of the IAT will connect established paths open to snowmobiles, ATVs and horses, whereas the AT is strictly a footpath. For their part, Baxter’s managers didn’t want a new trail that might usurp their authority inside the park and bring more people and cars to an already busy area.

As a compromise, all three parties agreed the IAT would begin as a side trail just outside Baxter. Then the Great Northern Paper Company, the largest landowner adjoining the park, refused to allow the trail to cross its land. While Anderson remains steadfast in his commitment to connect the IAT with the AT, the fact is he has no idea when and if Great Northern will acquiesce. And now it looks as though Great Northern may be selling the land anyway, which, from Anderson’s view, will at least give him a fresh start at negotiations. For now, the IAT begins about 80 miles northeast of Baxter at Mars Hill Mountain, which at any rate offers a suitably grand vista of the U.S.-Canada border.

While the IAT is still very much a work in progress, most of the route is now in place and Backpacker was champing at the bit for a pre-view. That meant sending me during the early part of spring thaw-in short, the worst possible time of year.

Still, I was anxious to see what a route to the end of the Appalachians would look like, and started patching together a hopscotching eight-day sampler. My plan was to follow the bits that were established and not snowed under, starting at the trail’s beginning in Mars Hill, then up 2,690-foot Mt. Carleton in the New Brunswick provincial park of the same name. From there, on to the New Brunswick-Quebec border and by all accounts, the most stunning part of the trail so far, Parc de la Gaspesie. I’d end up at Parc Forillon, the tip of the Gaspß Peninsula and the dramatic, cliffside grand finale of the IAT.

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