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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.

With time to kill at the bottom I decided to scout the hiking trail-the actual IAT path. The moment I set foot on it I realized this was the route I should have taken. Apart from a few lingering snow patches it was dry and spongy underfoot, and led through exquisite old-growth forest of black pine thickly intermingled with white and yellow birch, balsam fir, eastern white cedar, sugar maple, mountain ash, and pin cherry. It took me alongside a creek flanked by mossy boulders and hummocks of staircase ferns, the creek swollen to a gray-green torrent that spritzed the air with a chilly vapor. A pair of spruce grouse bobbed onto the trail and froze with their tails fanned, trying to merge into the shadows.

But Quebec was waiting, and the closer I got the more I felt its presence-not just in the increasing ruggedness of the terrain, but as a looming imminence on the horizon, as if its mountains created an eddy in the earth’s electro-magnetic field, the ripples hinting of grandeur to come.

The trail crosses into Quebec through the old lumber and salmon fishing town of Matapßdia, the last outpost of civilization before hikers embark on the trail’s rawest section: some 250 miles through pristine forests, mountains, rivers, ravines, creeks and waterfalls that IAT volunteers had just begun to blaze when I passed through.

I called on IAT committee member David Leblanc to show me a section he and a work crew cut last summer. At 15, David was the town’s only bear-hunting guide, but turned conservationist after seeing too many wounded bears escape to painful deaths. Now a quiet, bespectacled 23-year-old he shows only signs to visitors, like claw marks left by a foraging bear on an American ash, or a maple stripped of its bark by bruins marking their territory.

“I grow up in these woods,” he told me in heavily accented English. “We put in trails where not many people go, places not many people see. Clean, beautiful rivers where you can sit and watch the salmon.” As we stood absorbing the view from an escarpment over the confluence of the Matapßdia and Restigouche rivers, David added with shattering understatement, “It’s pretty nice. When people come I think they going to like it.”

From the escarpment the trail quickly enters the woods, and a short way in we passed a totem pole, the origin of which David declined to reveal-a bear and an eagle. David smiled self-consciously but it was clear how strongly it evoked his own feelings about what he’s opening to the world. “It represent the ‘iker’s entry into the mystic forest.”

This mystic forest extends northward over a series of ridges and ravines that build steadily into the Chic-Choc Mountains of Parc de la Gaspßsie, and that’s where I headed after leaving David to the daunting task of completing his section by the time this story hits the newsstands.

A 500-square-mile conservation area in the heart of the Gaspß Peninsula, Parc de la Gaspßsie was founded in 1937, though the park land and its surrounding reserves have been under the protection of the Quebec government since 1905. It is a treasure hidden too long in the attic of the continent.

At Parc de la Gaspßsie the IAT takes advantage of the Grand Traversße, (“great crossing”), and runs 70 miles east to west across the park, summiting 13 peaks between Mont Logan in the west and Mont Jacques Cartier in the east. At 4,160 feet, Mont Jacques Cartier, named for the French explorer who claimed the continent for France in 1534, is the highest point on the IAT.

Midway along the Grand Traversße you see 3,500 foot Mont Albert’s elliptic, 8-mile-square plateau of alpine tundra scoured by salt winds blowing off the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With its resident herd of caribou, the only living relic of ancient herds that once grazed southern Canada and the northern United States, the plateau has a distinct land-that-time-forgot appeal.

Despite the spring mire, I wanted to get up to the plateau and see what hikers on the IAT will see. But the Grand Traversße is officially closed for most of May and October for caribou calving and rutting, and so the Quebec government issued me a passport in the form of Jean Pierre Gagnon, one of its most experienced guides. When I asked him about our chances he shrugged. “At this time of year we’re usually still skiing. Spring has come early and that changes everything. I don’t know what we’re going to find up there.”

As if to emphasize his point, the lingering cloud vanished in a bril-liant blaze of sunshine, which made for perfect hiking but presented us with a completely new set of problems. The mountains became enmeshed in a filigree of silver thread as the snow cap started to melt and the runoff accelerated.

We started at a good clip through old-growth forest of fir and yellow beech fragrant with the fecund smells of spring, but soon discovered that the smells emanated from a steaming bog of a trail that had broken down in several places and had yet to be restored. Jean Pierre tut-tutted as we negotiated a swampy morass that other hikers had widened by trampling the adjoining terrain.

We moved up through a new level of fir and white birch forest, and by the time that gave way to fir and black spruce we were crunching through wet snow. About two-thirds of the way up we rested briefly at Lac du Diable (Devil Lake), brimming with huge but off-limits trout and clinking with broken ice that rose and fell with the swells. Soon afterward we cleared treeline and had gone about 200 yards over talus toward the fourth and final ecological zone of alpine tundra when we were stopped by the Ruiseeau du Diable, or Devil Creek.

The creek was in full flood and lashed the mountainside like a giant angry serpent. Jean Pierre pointed the way ahead, on the other side of the creek. “There is supposed to be a foot bridge here,” he said. “It must have been swept away by the floodwater. It’s possible we could cross higher up, but the water is rising quickly and I think we would not be able to get back.”

We ate lunch in warm sunshine amidst a coronet of crags that continued to decant their mega-loads of snowmelt into the already swollen creek in front of us, and, not for the first time on this trip, I pondered a future time when I might finish what I’d started.

The Appalachians have other names in this part of the world. At the western end of the Gaspß Peninsula they’re known by the MicMac Indian name, the Chic-Chocs, and in the east as the McGerrigle Ranges. Aliases aside, having come this far they haul themselves up for one almighty flourish before abruptly expiring at the water’s edge in Parc Forillon, as if sheared by a guillotine.

I camped on the north shore overlooking Cape Bon Ami, and got up at dawn to climb to the ridgeline and hike the last few miles to the cliffs. As the peninsula grew narrower I could look through the trees and see the ocean closing in on both sides. I also saw a monstrous shelf of fog looming offshore. I picked up the pace and raced it to the Cape Gaspß lighthouse, determined not to be cheated of even this modest triumph. I made it in time, but the trail doesn’t end there. A wooden staircase winds down the cliff face to a lookout with views of the 300-foot-high cliffs, worn smooth as sealskin by the wind and waves.

Within minutes of reaching the lookout the fog closed in but I stayed anyway, enjoying the solitude and the soothing sounds of the ocean, the cries of the gulls and guillemots, the coughing of the seals. I could only imagine how it must feel to hike the whole trail and then savor the sensation of standing at the end of the world, knowing that this is where the Appalachians end, that you can go no farther.

I’d only sampled what will await hikers in the year 2000, but it was enough to see how powerful the allure of the IAT will be. It will take nothing away from the Appalachian Trail but will add enormously to the adventure of the Appalachian Mountains. And slowly, over time, it will establish a character all its own.

I left Cape Gaspß via the South Coast Trail. I had gone only a short way when the fog lifted, leaving a plume trailing from the lighthouse like a banner. The ocean shone like a single sheet of polished steel until cut suddenly by a single blade-the fin of a humpback whale.

Then I was sure I’d be back.

If you can’t wait two years to hike the completed IAT end-to-end, or doubt you’ll be able to carve out two months for a thru-hike, here are four weekend to 10-day jaunts you can do now. The numbers of the hikes correspond to numbered, highlighted segments on the map.

Mars Hill, Maine, to the Canadian border (12 miles). Until the Great Northern Paper Company allows the IAT across its land, connecting Mt. Katahdin to Mars Hill, the U.S. sector remains a modest 23 miles and the IAT an international trail in spirit only. But that spirit is well worth catching on this comfortable weekend hike. Allow an hour to climb Mars Hill and watch the sunset from the summit. Camp in the summit shelter overnight and see the sun rise over eastern Canada. The hike to Fort Fairfield is all downhill and ends with a two hour ramble along the border. You can arrange a pick-up or camp overnight at a beautiful shelter in a stand of red pines right on the border.

Mount Carleton Provincial Park, New Brunswick (15 miles plus). A thru-hike of the Mount Carleton sector, starting at the south end of the park and taking in Mount Carleton, Bald Mount Brook, Mount Head, and Sagamook, will take two to three days. But don’t rush through. Set up a basecamp at Little Nictau Lake or Lake Nepisiguit and allow four to five days to take in the IAT and side trails like Caribou Brook, Dry Brook, and Big Brook. They are worth exploring to get the most out of the lush old-growth forest, creeks, and waterfalls that characterize this enchanting park.

Parc de la Gaspßsie, Quebec (70 miles). This is perhaps the most spectacular section of the IAT. Allow eight to ten days to hike from Mount Logan in the west to Mount Jacques Cartier in the east. You must stay in shelters so reservations are essential; book them well in advance. The temptation to linger at Mount Albert with its massive plateau, arctic tundra, and caribou herd will be immense. It’s also the halfway point in the hike. If you think you’ll want to rest a day this is the place to do it.

Parc Forillon, Quebec (15 miles). The kind of hike that belongs in a fairy tale. The trail follows a ridgeline through old-growth forest and along the narrowing peninsula in this easy two-day trip. You taste the ocean before you see it, then glimpse it tantalizingly through the trees on both sides for the last couple of miles until the trees end abruptly at a sloping patch of meadow. Finally, there’s the lighthouse atop 300-foot cliffs, then nothing but ocean. Sit down, relax, and watch the whales play.

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