The International Appalachian Trail
September 18, 2003
When it comes to hiking in the East, the Appalachian Trail, or “AT,” as it’s known, is perhaps the hiker’s grandest obsession. Stretching some 2,167 miles (3,488 km) through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, this insane track is traversed by some 300 to 400 people every year, and all count it among their finest experiences.
As of Feb. 7, 2003, 7,183 people had hiked the entire AT (from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Maine), according to the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC), a nonprofit that does a number of AT-related functions. Some 37,000 people hike portions of it each year.
But ask any geologist and he’ll tell you the AT is inaccurately labeled, because the Appalachian Mountains don’t end at Mount Katahdin. From there they continue up through New Brunswick and Quebec, and out onto Newfoundland, finishing at Newfoundland and Labrador’s (Newfoundland and Labrador is one province) Belle Isle – a point so far to the east in Canada’s maritime region you can hear the thumps of Irish dancers’ feet. And from Belle Isle, the Appalachians dip into the Atlantic to arise – although the chain doesn’t continue under the ocean – in parts of western Europe and Africa.
Rocks across the sea
That the Appalachians exist in Europe and Africa is not really a surprise to geologists. Over the 4.5 billion-or-so years since Earth formed, rocks and continents have pushed each other around like kids in a schoolyard. When continents collide, they squash mountains up; when they draw apart, they crack and form oceans.
As any geologist can attest, the Appalachian/Caledonide Mountains were formed about 369 million to 380 million years ago, when the then-existing continents on the Earth’s surface all collided to form the supercontinent of Pangea.
Recommended Stories For You
“This collision and uplift formed the Appalachians/Caledonides,” said Maine-based geologist Walt Anderson in an e-mail interview. “There were no Appalachians before this time, although there might have been other and older mountains at other locations on Pangea (as some have speculated). About 275 million years ago, Pangea rifted apart, opening the proto-Atlantic Ocean and forming the continents as we know them today.”
The splitting of the continents also meant the splitting of the Appalachian/Caledonide mountains, so that bits and pieces of the range were cast off to northern Europe, Scandinavia, parts of Africa and Greenland.
In countries like Morocco and Algeria, there are only a few Appalachian-related rocks. In Spain and France, however, there are major Appalachian-related outcrops and hills. Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia also boast large chunks of the Appalachians.
So, if the AT were a trail based truly on its geographic title, then you’d expect it to pass through a half-dozen western European nations.
Before we go to Europe, however, we must talk of Canada. Dick Anderson (no relation to Walt) of Freeport, Maine, is the founder and president of the International Appalachian Trail/Sentier International des Appalaches (IAT/SIA), an organization dedicated to creating a trail through Canada and portions of Maine where one does not already exist.
“What we’re doing is creating a new trail, the IAT/SIA, from Katahdin to Belle Isle,” Anderson said in a recent telephone interview. “The basic concept is to create a trail that follows the Appalachian Mountains.” And after Belle Isle, Anderson acknowledges, it might head east, across the sea.
The concept of lengthening the Appalachian Trail beyond Katahdin and through Canada has been around awhile, but it was Anderson who actually got the ball rolling in 1994. Then, while working on former Maine Gov. Joe Brennan’s campaign, Anderson pushed Brennan to promote the idea of an international mountain trail – connecting countries, languages and cultures in North America.
A couple of months later, various organizations and individuals met for the first time to talk about extending the trail through Canada’s eastern provinces. New Brunswick (now boasting about 170 miles of trail) and Maine (now boasting about 100 miles beyond the end of the AT) responded quickly and began working on trails, but it was the province of Quebec (which today has about 417 miles of IAT/SIA) that embraced the proposition seriously.
According to Anderson, the Quebec government poured millions of dollars into the project throughout the mid- to late 1990s so that today the entire IAT/SIA through the province lies on forest trails (in other provinces, the trail follows highways in places) and boasts 35,000 trail markers, 24 shelters and dozens of campsites.
“In Quebec, they’ve done a spectacular job,” Anderson said. “In Quebec, it’s complete. The trail is a trail. There are 27 completed campsites, and you can buy one pass for all the campsites. They’re organized.”
In April 2003, at a meeting of trail officials from both sides of the border, Newfoundland and Labrador committed to creating a section of IAT/SIA as far as Belle Isle, on Canada’s eastern edge. The province has mapped out the route, but has yet to complete the actual path.
The ultimate result of all this planning is a huge trail looming in the near future: It includes the AT from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Maine; a Key West-to-Springer Mountain section through Florida; and the IAT/SIA’s Katahdin-to-Belle Isle section. Some suggest the “Eastern Continental Trail” as a title and, remarkably, there are already three people who have hiked the entire 4,417-mile distance.
A Basaltine hikes the Gaspe Peninsula
I have visited bits and pieces of the AT in Tennessee and New York, arguably in a couple of it prettiest places (the Smoky Mountains and through Harriman-Bear Mountain State Park), and I have hiked all over the East, yet it’s clear the best parts of the “Appalachian” trail are those north of the border.
I recently had the opportunity to ramble along the Gaspe Peninsula section of the trail, from near Matapedia, close to the New Brunswick-Quebec border, to Cap (Cape) Gaspe, and found several things the Georgia-to-Maine AT lacks: an interesting culture, a language more beautiful than the Queen’s, and – this is important – picturesque seaside scenery. Where along the AT can one hike in view of the ocean? There might be a spot or two near the New York-Connecticut border from which you can spot Long Island Sound, but there are few places on the AT where you can happily amble along for days at a time while whale watching.
In Parc National de la Gaspesie (where the trail crosses the peninsula from south to north), I wandered a brief section of the IAT up to Lac aux Americains, a stunning lake in a high glacial cirque, with Jean-Philippe Chartrand of Parcs Quebec. I was a little surprised at how pristine the Lac aux Americains area was. No fisherman’s tracks circumnavigated the lake, and no minor trails headed into the woods. According to Chartrand, in all Parcs Quebec’s Gaspesie parks, people aren’t allowed off-trail, meaning your activities are limited but the parks are commensurately untouched.
After crossing the mountainous peninsula, the IAT/SIA descends to the St. Lawrence River at Mont-Saint-Pierre, where the trail brings you to a stony beach. I caught a ride in a van here and was lucky enough to spend the night in Petite-Vallee, a village (like Aspen in the summer) devoted to music.
The following day I investigated the IAT/SIA trail as it snaked along the St. Lawrence coast near Pointe-à-la-Renommee. The trail wanders along steep ridges atop the peninsula directly above the sea – enough to make any Maroon Bells climber wobbly. One of the many trail huts (this one called “Le Zephir”) is located here, a cool little cabin not unlike Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division huts, but with ocean, rather than mountain, views.
At the end of my trip I visited Cap Gaspe in Forillon National Park, a stunning chunk of terra firma gazing out over the sea (a local tourist brochure mentioned the possibility of kayaking while watching blue whales). In all, a pretty nice place for an amble.
After Newfoundland’s Belle Isle, it’s a bit of a guess where Anderson and his chums might take the trail, although I can say for sure upon reaching Cap Gaspe at Forillon, I was more than ready to hop in a kayak and head for Dingle (Ireland).
“We would very much like to be in touch with hiking clubs in France, Scotland, Ireland, Norway or any of the 23 countries that have remnants of the original Appalachians,” Dick Anderson said.
If sharing cultures, language and mountain hiking is the goal, it’s not hard to imagine the IAT/SIA through Africa, northern Europe and Scandinavia.
I, for one, am ready to go.
Cameron M. Burns lives and writes in Basalt. He is a contributing editor of justsaygo.com, a travel e-zine. His latest book is 50 Hikes in Colorado, published by the Countryman Press, a division of W.W. Norton.