The International Appalachian Trail currently spans 14 countries, following the Appalachian Mountain chain, which broke apart millions of years ago. But perhaps more importantly, the international trail connects hiking communities separated by national borders and the Atlantic Ocean.
Greenland was the first IAT chapter outside North America; and earlier this month, a group of young, enthusiastic Greenlanders flew to the United States to visit where the trail began — Maine.
“This hiking in Maine was pretty tough on us because of the heat and the humidity,” said Rene Kristensen, co-founder and president of IAT Greenland. “It was about 100 degrees in the woods down in the south of the trail.”
In Maine, the south end of the IAT is at the summit of Mount Katahdin. It begins where the Appalachian Trail ends.
Kristensen and Lars Poort, co-founder of IAT Greenland, led the group of five teenage boys from The Children’s Home Uummannaq in the small town of Uummannaq, Greenland. The boys, who primarily speak Greenlandic, are Hans Thomassen, Rasmus Alataq, Frank Jensen, Kununnguaq Knudsen and Enok Alataq.
“They loved that, they really did, because on the top of Katahdin it’s very similar to Greenland,” said Kristensen, who is an educator, therapist and project leader at The Children’s Home Uummannaq. “Above treeline, we actually found some flowers and plants up there that we have in Greenland. It was just like being at home for a couple of hours.”
As an educational project, the group has been developing the IAT in North Greenland on the Nuussuaq Peninsula for the past four years.
“The international aspect of the IAT is important to us because it gives us an opportunity to show the boys the world outside Greenland, with a strong link and some recognition to the project back home in Greenland,” Kristensen said.
In 12 hot days, they hiked about 120 miles on the IAT, from Katahdin to Shin Pond, then from Houlton to the Canadian border at Fort Fairfield. The crossed the border on July 22.
“In general it was very well marked and maintained,” Kristensen said. “There was a few areas — the last part of the trail, along the border was a little tough. A beaver dam had flooded the trail, but we managed to get by.”
From Katahdin, they trekked to Katahdin Lake, then over Deasey Mountain and Lunksoos Mountain, where they paused to take in a view of Katahdin and, awestruck, watched as a lightning storm swept over the Maine woods. Lightning storms are rare in Greenland.
Maine critters and insects were also subjects of fascination for the boys, who had only visited the United States once before their hiking excursion in Maine, and that was on a trip to New York. One animal in particular that interested them were the black bears they ran into on the trail.
“One was actually pretty huge and awesome, too,” Kristensen said. “We have polar bears where we live, and they are really dangerous. We carry rifles when we go backpacking. It was really nice to see a bear and not be afraid it would hunt us down.”
Before coming to Maine, the group hiked 100 miles on the Greenland section of the IAT, so it was easy for them to make comparisons between the two ecosystems.
“We have lots of mosquitoes in Greenland,” Kristensen said. “But we don’t have dragonflies and the giant spiders the boys saw in Maine.”
While the climate is more balmy in Maine, the group enjoyed the luxury of being able to cool off in ponds, streams and lakes every day. When they hike in Greenland, they usually can only dip their feet in the frigid water, but the boys “swam around like otter” in Maine’s “warm water,” said Kristensen.
In Maine, the IAT is built so backpackers can hike from lean-to to lean-to. The group only used their tents once.
From Lunksoos Mountain, they traveled through the woods along the East Branch of the Penobscot River and Grand Lake Road to Shin Pond, where they rested for a day and celebrated one of the boys’ birthday with a cake from nearby Patten.
A highlight of the trip was their night at Mars Hill, where they viewed the forest of two countries. In the still night air, the windmills went quiet, and the boys laid on their backs to look at the stars.
“No people, no lights — it was very interesting,” Kristensen said. “It was a very huge area of no human activity.”
The hike ended after they crossed the Canadian border. From there, they drove south to Presque Isle to be welcomed by Chunzeng Wang, a professor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. Wang took them out for Chinese food, and the next day, the group visited Mi’kmaq youth environmental camp at Spruce Haven in Caribou. They then traveled to Boston to fly back to Greenland.
While the Greenlanders were impressed by the kindness of the Maine residents they met during their trip, they only met one other hiker on the trail, which can be accessed at several locations throughout northern Maine.
“It’s a pity people in Maine don’t know about this trail,” Kristensen said. “It takes you through some very beautiful landscape and some really nice scenic places. It’s a way to experience the country.”
Because few hikers currently use the IAT, the trail needs more maintenance than a well-traveled trail.
The idea to build a hiking trail through the northern Appalachian Mountains was proposed at a news conference on April 22, 1994, in Portland, by former Maine Gov. Joseph E. Brennan, with the technical support of Maine conservationists Dick Anderson and Don Hudson.
From Maine, the IAT continues through New Brunswick, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, totaling 1,862 miles in North America. It then heads overseas to Greenland, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, Netherlands, the Faroe Islands of Denmark, mainland Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Spain and France. The entire route has yet to be established, and some countries are closer to completing their IAT route than others.
“In Europe, there is such a long history of walking and using longstanding travel routes that it’s actually much easier for them,” Hudson, president of the Maine IAT. “There are already existing trails that go from one side of Scotland to the other.”
After nearly 20 years of trail work and international communication, the IAT held its first general meeting outside North America on June 16, at the Iceland Touring Association headquarters in Reykjavik, Iceland.
“I was very encouraged by the progress that was reported particularly by folks in Norway and Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and also in England, Scotland and Ireland,” said Hudson of the meeting.
The IAT continues to expand into new areas of the Appalachian Terrains, based on the original premise that the trail will eventually connect all of the mountains that were created when the ancient continent of Pangaea was formed 300 million years ago.
“We’ve been at this for 18 years, and we figure it may take us another 18 to secure the best possible route for the IAT,” said Hudson, who climbed to Katahdin’s Pamola Peak to hike with the Greenland group on the way down the mountain on the first day of their trip. “We always tell people, it’s a work in progress.”