International Appalachian Trail

Trek Through to the True End of the Appalachian Mountains
By Paul Mann
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It seems so obvious now, yet, in all those years of all those hikers starting out at Springer Mountain, Georgia, and hiking the Appalachian Trail to the finish line at Mount Katahdin, Maine, it seems not one of them asked the question why? If the Appalachian Mountains don't stop at Katahdin, why should the Appalachian Trail stop at Katahdin?

In the end, the idea for an international extension to the AT came from a guy stuck in a traffic jam. Dick Anderson, hiker, bird-watcher, fly fisherman, and a former Maine Commissioner of Conservation, had roamed both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border all his life, bagging peaks, tracing the migratory flight paths of birds, and seeking out the best salmon fishing spots. It was obvious to him that Maine and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec belonged to the same vast and spectacular eco-system and it irked him that most of his countrymen viewed Maine as the end of the line. It was as if the adventure ended on Katahdin's wind scoured flanks and there was nothing left to explore beyond the blue haze of northern horizon. He knew that in many ways the best was yet to come.

When the idea hit him, he says, it hit with such force it slammed him back in his car seat: to know it, hikers had to walk it. They had to experience both sides of the border. They had to follow the Appalachian Mountain range all the way to its end in the chilly waters of the Gulf Of St. Lawrence at the tip of Cape Gaspi, Quebec, Canada. Then they would understand the full meaning of eco-regionalism, of the interconnectedness of the United States with Canada that overruled all artificial boundaries.

Plans for an international extension to the Appalachian Trail were announced on Earth Day, April 22, 1994, and swiftly became bogged down in bureaucracy. The Appalachian Trail Conference, which manages the AT didn't want to compromise the historic integrity of the AT as a Georgia to Maine trail, nor did they want to be stuck with maintenance responsibilities if the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) fellinto disrepair. Also, the managers of Maine's Baxter State Park, where Katahdin is located, didn't want an increase in the already heavy foot traffic in that area of the park.

The solution was to start the IAT outside Baxter, cut northeast throughMount Chase to Mars Hill and then to the U.S.-Canada border at FortFairfield, a total distance of about 100 miles. From Fort Fairfield thetrail heads east by northeast through New Brunswick to Mount CarletonProvincial Park, then north to Matapidia on the Quebec border, a total distance of about 170 miles. From Matapidia the trail cuts north through some of the last true wilderness left in North America, then east through Parc de la Gaspisie until it hits the Chic Chocs Provincial Reserve where it dog-legs north to the coast and follows the coast to the tip of Cape Gaspi. This is a distance of about 350 miles, making a total distance for the IAT of about 520 miles though it feels longer.

The Quebec section of the trail is not only the longest, it's the most rugged, and while often the most rewarding, it is undeniably the most demanding. If you're in shape you could thru-hike the IAT in two months. If you're not in shape it might take you a little longer but you'd be in shape when you finished.

Because of the bureaucracies involved two countries, two languages, federal, provincial and state governments and multiple committees there was some doubt as to whether the IAT would meet its target opening date of Earth Day 2000. Contrary to all expectations, it actually happened early with an official opening ceremony at CapeGaspi on National Trails Day, June 5, 1999.

There was however a little cheating going on. It was possible to hike the IAT from Mars Hill to Cape Gaspi, but the organizers were still awaiting permission from paper companies to cut that first crucial section of trail from Baxter to Mars Hill. Still today, the section between Baxter and Mars Hill consists mostly of logging roads across land owned by paper companies which have so far proven to be singularly uncooperative. For some reason they don't mind snowmobilers burning up their trails but they object to hikers and all that rowdy tree hugging. The problem has been complicated by the sale of several large tracts of land since 1994 so Dick Anderson isn't always sure with whom he should be negotiating. His solution may be to cut the trail anyway. The right of way exists and it may just be a matter of building it so they will accept it's there.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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