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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.

First, though, I met with Dick Anderson to get the lowdown straight from the dreamer himself. I’d expected Dick’s description to be sunny, but when he talked about the trail his eyes acquired the rapturous glaze of a teenager who’s just discovered first love. I was greedy for some of that myself.

According to Dick, the summit of 2,100-foot Mars Hill Mountain, and not Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain, is the first place in the eastern United States to be lit by the morning sun, and the flagpole atop Mars Hill was the first to fly the 50-star flag. “On a clear day from the top of Mars Hill you can see all the way back to Mt. Katahdin. “And when you look ahead it’s like all of eastern Canada is laid out in front of you.”

Except I didn’t have a clear day. I started my IAT sojourn on a drizzly afternoon, planning to spend the night in the new shelter atop the mountain and enjoy the view when Dick said it was at its best: sunrise. I set off beneath ski-lift pylons newly emblazoned with blue and white IAT trail markers (the trail has since been rerouted through the woods, away from the ski area) and was soon enveloped in a cold, gray mist that obscured the top half of the mountain. The climb took about an hour and no sooner had I reached the summit when a storm swept in. I made some tea and watched spinnakers of mist swirl past the shelter in a gale I knew would strip away the last remnants of clouds by morning.

But in the morning I awoke inside a ghostly gray dome where even the birds sounded eerily muted. The wind had died and the fog had only thickened.

From the summit the trail follows the ridgeline north through scrubby stands of beech, birch, and spruce stunted by ferocious ice storms that lash the mountain each winter. I thought I might get under the cloud ceiling and see at least a sliver of that touted view, but the trail was choked with winter debris: scrawny trees yanked from the rocky soil, branches tangled in a thick mesh of bent and broken saplings, all trying to nudge me off-trail in the fog. So I bailed, retreating to the car, hoping to outrun the fog to the border. Just as well. When I swung by eight days later on the return trip the blanket hadn’t budged.

From Mars Hill the trail descends through a mix of rolling forest and farmland to the border 12 miles away, which is defined by a 40-foot-wide slash in the trees and grass with white cement markers down the middle. It’s possible to bushwhack into Canada at this point but not advisable. The border is under electronic surveillance and “Do Not Enter” signs warn of fines and imprisonment for those who try. Hikers must follow the trail into Fort Fairfield and undergo the formalities of legal entry, which means proper I.D. and possibly a gear search.

On the Canadian side the IAT runs into its first big PR problem. The trail follows the busy main highway through the town of Perth-Andover, crosses the St. John River, and links with the New Brunswick Trail, a 10-foot-wide gravel path atop an old rail bed that braids its way between the Tobique River and Highway 385 through 100 miles of flat farmland to Mt. Carleton Provincial Park. What would otherwise be a pleasant riverside hike is marred by homes and seasonal retreats on both riverbanks. For five days you’re hiking past peoples’ backyards, which is great if you don’t mind barking dogs and trampolines.

I mentioned this later to Mel Fitton, the IAT’s chief organizer in New Brunswick, and heard him bristle over the phone.

“The Appalachian Trail wasn’t built in a day,” he said. “They have been working on it 60 years and there are still places where it passes through settled areas and along highways. We’re looking for better places to relocate sections of the IAT in New Brunswick, but it’s a slow process that requires the cooperation of a lot of different landowners.”

Sounding almost wounded he added: “Wait until the new section is finished in the north, where it winds along the banks of the Restigouche River. That’s beautiful, unspoiled country, as good as anything in Quebec.”

I still couldn’t help but feel that the southern New Brunswick section would be trafficked mostly by thru-hikers determined to notch up the whole trail. Others, with a more limited timetable, will likely head straight for the sweet spots.

One of the sweetest is Mt. Carleton Provincial Park, where the Appalachians rear up out of the flatlands in a 44,000-acre spectacle that takes the IAT over the namesake mountain, at 2,690 feet the highest peak in Canada’s Maritime provinces.

When I arrived in early May the lakes had just de-iced, the roads were bogs and a rind of snow clung stubbornly to the mountains. But I had the campground at Little Nictau Lake to myself, the sun was shining and there wasn’t a wisp of fog. I fell asleep to the call of loons and in the morning awoke to see fingers of mist stealing over the mountain tops.

Then the park’s assistant superintendent, Marie-Josße Laforest (Mary-Jo Forest in English or Mo-Jo to her friends), dropped by with the bad news. “I don’ know if you gonna get up Mt. Carleton today,” she said in a lilting French accent. I hadn’t brought snowshoes, there were none to borrow and she didn’t think I’d finish the climb without them.

“There’s still a lot of snow up there,” she said. “We had a guy try it with snowshoes two days ago an’ he was exhausted when he got back. He said it was very hard.”

There was one possibility, she added. “There is a snowmobile trail where the snow might still be hard enough to walk on.”

An hour later she dropped me at the foot of the mountain and pointed out a 10-foot-wide snowmobile trail that goes to within 400 feet of the summit. Nearby a wooden rail marked the entrance to another trail.

“It’s a pity you can’t go that way,” Marie-Josee said. “It’s a much prettier trail, but it’s very steep and I don’ think you would get through the snow.” She added that the climb up the snowmobile trail took about 90 minutes in summer, but at this time of year…she gave an eloquent Gallic shrug and wished me bon chance.

The weather gods must have followed every skidding, staggering step with raucous amusement because when I made it to the top the fog closed in like heavy drapes, cutting the view to 50 feet. I turned back while mumbling some choice words about El Ni?o, his parents, and how proud they must be.

But the descent was easy. I came down like a log in a flume.

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