The International Appalachian Trail passes over Mount Sagamook, which overlooks Nictau Lake in Mount Carleton Provincial Park in New Brunswick. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Twenty-five years ago, three Mainers celebrated Earth Day by announcing a far-fetched idea that has since led them on a far-flung adventure, as their concept for the International Appalachian Trail made its way across the Atlantic Ocean. What started as a trail connecting Maine to Canada became a cooperative effort among hiking groups, rambling clubs and geologists in 13 countries.

On April 22, 1994, Dick Anderson, the former commissioner of Maine’s Department of Conservation, and Don Hudson, then-president of the Wiscasset-based Chewonki Foundation, an outdoor education center, persuaded former Maine Gov. Joe Brennan to mark Earth Day – this year, happening Monday – with a news conference detailing their plan to build a 750-mile hiking trail that would link Maine to Canada. The original idea was simple: To extend the Appalachian Trail from its northern terminus atop Mount Katahdin to the highest peaks in New Brunswick and Quebec in order to trace the Appalachian Mountain range all the way to the sea.

Anderson said it is ironic – given the debate raging today around a wall at the southern border of the U.S. – that in 1994 their intention was to inspire thinking beyond borders. 

“People think the world is divided up by lines, borders. But it’s not,” said Anderson, now 84. “When you walk along the border between Maine and New Brunswick, you can see the bees flying back and forth and the rabbits running back and forth. There are no lines. There’s just the Earth.”

A relatively new theory in geology discovered in the 1970s proved that parts of the ancient Appalachian Mountain range that existed 250 million years ago broke apart when the North Atlantic Ocean began to open up – and parts of the original range on the “super continent” scattered throughout Europe, Scandinavia and parts of Africa. It was the idea at the heart of the International Appalachian Trail.

“The theory of plate tectonics explains how these mountains in the British Isles and Scandinavia and Canada and Maine all have common origin,” said Bob Marvinney, Maine’s state geologist and a member of the International Appalachian Trail board of directors for 15 years.

Don Hudson, one of the founders of the International Appalachian Trail, hikes the trail in County Donegal, Ireland, by the Slieve League Mountain in 2016. Photo courtesy of Don Hudson

That original trail in Maine and Canada was completed in 2000. What followed was a massive collaboration between hikers and geologists in other countries. For the next 18 years, Hudson and Anderson worked tirelessly – and traveled abroad often – to unite trail groups in other countries, creating a veritable United Nations of hiking enthusiasts. They recruited 25 members to the board of directors in Maine to help to grow the idea.

Today, in addition to the original 750 miles of trail in Maine and Canada, there is another 600 miles along Newfoundland’s mountainous western shore, and a trail that cuts through the Canadian Maritimes. Along with the trails that also exist in Europe and Africa, the total number of miles completed on the IAT is 5,500 miles. Now the IAT can be hiked in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Spain, Portugal and Morocco.

When it’s completed, it could total 12,000 miles. But none of that was the intention on Earth Day a quarter of a century ago.

“At the first press conference, I said something about how the mountains also continue on the other side of the Atlantic, but that’s a matter for another time. It was a wise-guy statement,” said Hudson, 68. “That didn’t become something to think about until folks in Newfoundland approached us in late 2002.”

AN IDEA THAT SPREAD

That year at the IAT annual meeting in New Brunswick, hikers from Newfoundland showed up and said they wanted the trail to go along their coastline where the Appalachian Mountains continue.

“We listened to them for about 10 minutes and said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a good idea,’ ” Hudson said.

Next, hikers from the Canadian Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island asked to be included, because geologists in those provinces found parts of the mountain range there.

Then, in 2009, everything changed at a geological convention in Portland, when Hudson and Anderson set up a booth about the IAT that two visiting geologists from Scotland saw. The Scots took the brochures home, and two months later invited the Mainers to come hike the Scottish Highlands to see their mountain range.

“The Scots were working on creating geo-parks based on geology and realized they could enhance their application for funding by making a connection to this international project,” Hudson said. “The Scots got the memo right away. They realized instantly they needed to connect (the IAT) to their neighbors.”

Next, a host of European countries including Spain, Ireland, Northern Ireland and England asked to join, and in 2012 the international meeting of the IAT was held in Iceland. The momentum behind the trail was official.

“We didn’t think five people would show up,” Anderson recalls of the Iceland convention. “There were more than 40 people there from other countries, as well as hikers from across Iceland.”

Over the next seven years, representatives from Maine went back and forth to Scotland, England, Ireland and Northern Ireland. Interest in the trail continues to grow in Morocco, where Hudson said finishing it will take no time at all.

The town of Mont Saint Pierre, on the northern coast of the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec, is where the trail first meets the sea. Already a hang-gliding mecca, the town hopes to further cash in on the influx of tourists the trail may bring. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

“For 400 years, there have been people from Europe going trekking in Morocco, hiring a guide to hike through the mountains there,” Hudson said. “We figure the way to build it up is to talk to the guides there.”

Marvinney has hiked the trail in Spain, Portugal and Morocco. In these countries, he said, the rock on the mountains looks the same as in parts of the Appalachian Mountains in North America. Similarities exist in the ridges and in the sedimentary layers.

“The trail is a cultural thing created by people. But it acknowledges the common thread of geology shared across these many landscapes,” Marvinney said.

THE TRAIL IN MAINE

The original section of the trail in Maine and Canada has not drawn crowds of hikers – only about two dozen annually do the entire stretch, although hundreds hike smaller sections, Hudson said. But the co-chair of the trail’s international council of chapters said that’s not the point. Hudson said locals enjoying a wild scenic trail that connects to other countries is the vision.

Those who have hiked it say it’s not as well cut as the Appalachian Trail, and far less traveled, but it combines a unique beauty and rare experience.

George Woodard, a Patten native who now lives in Syracuse, New York, and hiked the Appalachian Trail three times, said when he hiked the IAT in Maine and Canada in 2016 and 2017, it was deserted. 

“If you asked hikers if they know it, I think the answer is generally, no. That’s my take on it,” Woodard said. “What impressed me, I would say, is how alone I was. I don’t remember seeing another hiker. I’ve hiked a lot of places. That doesn’t happen very often.”

Long-distance hiker Joe Norman hiked the IAT in Maine and Canada for the first time in 2005 after he heard about it while hiking the Appalachian Trail. Few knew about it, Norman said. But he liked the idea. So he found the website on a computer at a library and emailed Anderson, who sent Norman maps to pick up at a post office along the Appalachian Trail in Maine.

Norman enjoyed the IAT so much, he continued on it in Newfoundland, and seven years later hiked it in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Spain.

“The hospitality in Maine was wonderful,” said Norman, of Calhoun, Georgia. “Then when you cross into Canada for 15 miles you’re walking on the international border with Canada on one side and Maine on the other. You’re looking at a beaver pond and then you walk past a granite marker. It was fascinating.”

THE WORK CONTINUES

On May 2 in Shin Pond, hikers and trail stewards from Maine and Canada will gather to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the International Appalachian Trail. A few weeks later, they’ll leave for Northern Ireland and Ireland, where a weeklong forum will study the economic impact of the trail. Joining them at that IAT meeting will be officials from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and staff from the Appalachian Mountain Club in Boston. 

Beth Lawson, left, the first woman to hike the IAT, and Bryant Bennett hike along the road into the northern gate of Baxter State Park in 2000. The couple was going to camp outside of the park and wait for reservations to hike over Katahdin. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Hudson said the IAT means many things to many nations, but mostly this meandering footpath is about the ancient mountain range – and the joys of hiking it – that we all share.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to reach the sort of scale as the three grand trails in North America – the AT, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail – at least not in my lifetime,” Hudson said. “But when you look at the philosophy (behind the start) of the AT, it focused on rural economic development. That’s why the guys in Scotland invited us there. I think every country you go to, you’ll find something different about the trail. And that’s what’s so cool about it.”

When Hudson hiked with a group of IAT supporters on the trail in Ireland in 2016, they crossed the famous 1,950-foot Slieve League Mountain along the Atlantic Ocean – which has some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe – and they looked down on sheep farms and dropped into fishing villages. From there, the trail continues over Ireland’s Blue Stack Mountains in County Donegal and across the border to Northern Ireland. There, near where a border gate manned by guards stood not so long ago, now is a hiking trail.

“We spent each night in a small inn, pub or B&B,” Hudson said. “It was fun and a little more expensive than a walk in the woods in Maine. But worth every penny.”

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