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Adventure Travel

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.

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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.

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.

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. Expedition PlannerThe trail is designed to be hiked in sections and at no point are you more than a day from an access point. Right now nobody can tell you exactly how long a true thru-hike will take because in 2000 you’ll be among the first to do it, and the organizers will be coming to you for feedback. Getting there: The IAT currently begins at Mars Hill, Maine, which is roughly 150 miles north of Bangor via route I-95 north to Houlton, then north on Route 1 to the village of Mars Hill. Fork right onto 1A, cross the bridge over the Presque Isle Stream, take the third road on the right 5 miles to Big Rock Ski Area. The trail will end at Parc Forillon, perched at the tip of the Gaspß Peninsula off Route 132. When to go: July through early September is prime time. Check with the Maine IAT about conditions at Mars Hill, and with rangers at Mt. Carleton Provincial Park about snowpack at higher elevations. April 21 to June 25 is bear-hunting season in New Brunswick, which will be a factor as new sections of trail open. Check with Mel Fitton (New Brunswick IAT) or the Fish and Wildlife branch of the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources and Energy on those areas and times when you should wear blaze orange. In Quebec, mud season ends late June to early July, and snow is likely in late September or early October. Exact dates of hunting seasons vary, but bear hunting generally runs May 1 to July 4, small game Sept. 15 to mid-December, and moose through October. Call David Leblanc or Andrew Wake, both with the Quebec IAT, for up-to-date information on trail conditions and when to wear orange. Or you can call the Quebec Ministry of Environment and Fauna regional office at Rimouski. Contact Parc de la Gaspßsie and Parc Forillon directly for trail conditions in their segments. Permits: Camping reservations are necessary for Mt. Carleton Provincial Park, Parc de la Gaspßsie, and Parc Forillon. Backcountry campsites generally cost around C$5 per tent per night, main campgrounds C$10 to $17.50 per tent per night. Hikers on the Parc de la Gaspßsie Grand Traversße must stay in shelters along the trail, which are reserved in advance. Rates are C$15 per person per night. Safety: If you’re determined to be among the first to blaze the trail, go with the attitude that you’ll be a pioneer. Hike in July and August, when weather and water shouldn’t be a problem. The new section of trail I hiked north of Matapßdia was littered with fresh bear and moose scat; people are definitely a minority. Maps: No detailed maps will be printed until the IAT is complete, so current trail information will consist of written guides available from the IAT offices or the parks. Write or call the contacts listed here, specifying that you need maps or guides to the IAT/SIA in their area of coverage. Contacts followed by a can provide trail information and/or maps. Allow 4 to 6 weeks when writing the Maine IAT office, and include a stamped, self-addressed envelope big enough to hold a dozen photocopied sheets. Note: Many map providers take credit or bank debit cards, which avoids the hassle of calculating the dollar exchange rate. Cultural tips: As of this writing the exchange rate was about C$1.45 to U.S.$1.00, which you can use as a general guideline. The Gaspß is within the French part of Quebec and there are few English signs. That doesn’t mean you’ll be in an alien culture. Almost everybody in the hospitality industry speaks some English. If you’re a male hiker you’re a randonneur and if you’re a female hiker you’re a randonneuse. Learn the phrase, “Je suis un randonneur/randonneuse Americain,” which means, “I am an American hiker.” At least they’ll know you’re trying.-P. Mann

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