LEE, Maine — Noah Biggley had read and heard how difficult the trek across the plains to Utah was for the early members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Between 1856 and 1860, about 3,000 men, women and children walked, pulling all of their belongings in handcarts, from the banks of the Mississippi River to the Salt Lake Valley. Many died of starvation and disease during the more than 1,200-mile trek.
Biggley, 16, of Prince Edward Island said that he had no idea how difficult it was until he and 240 fellow Mormon teens were caught pulling handcarts on an ATV trail in Maine during a torrential thunderstorm in the late afternoon on Aug. 4. The group, which also included more than 100 adults from Maine and Canada, was on the second day of a four-day re-enactment of the 19th century trek.
“I’d heard the stories about how hard it was and everything but until I actually came here, I did not know what they were talking about,” Biggley said as the group cooked supper over a fire in a hayfield on Aug. 5. “Yesterday was that huge torrential rain. It was just miserable.
“I decided not to use my rain jacket because I didn’t want to break the authenticity of it,” he continued. “It was horrible. I hated it. And it wasn’t even cold like when they crossed, so it gave me a greater appreciation of what they did for us.”
That appreciation for the sacrifices made by the early Mormon pioneers is the purpose of the trek re-enactments, according to organizers in Bangor. Designed for 14- to 18-year-olds, the treks are sponsored by LDS churches around the world once every four years.
The recent trek was the second time the Bangor church has organized the event. There are more than 10,000 members of the Mormon church in Maine, according to church statistics.
The trek provides opportunities for teens to strengthen testimonies, build unity, understand family history and learn core Mormon principles, according to the trek re-enactment handbook posted on the LDS website. Those principles include faith, obedience, charity, sacrifice and persevering through adversity.
The youth are assigned to a married couple who are their “Ma” and “Pa” for the trek. All must take a turn at pulling the wooden handcarts loaded with sleeping bags, tents, clothing, water, mess kits and cooking equipment. The group traveled more than 20 miles in four days.
They don’t go without some 21st century amenities including portable toilets, sleeping bags, plastic tarps, metal fire rings, modern footwear and raingear.
“This is a really different type of experience,” Rebecca Levesque, 15, of Millinocket said during the trek. “It’s been really hard at times to push the cart but it’s also been really fun. To prepare, we had to make our own clothes and build up our strength. For the past three months, I’ve been walking every morning to prepare for this huge trek.
“The most challenging thing so far was walking up this really, really long hill today,” she said of pulling the handcart up a rocky, rutted ATV trail with deep mud puddles from the previous day’s rain. “I know that I’ve been going through a lot less than they did. But, now, when I read or hear stories from their times, I can relate to it more.”
Understanding the adversity and the persecution endured by the early members of the church is one of the goals of the trek. The LDS church was founded after Joseph Smith had a vision in 1820 in upstate New York in which God and Jesus Christ appeared to him.
Three years later, the angel Moroni revealed to him the location of gold tablets that contained what would be published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon, according to the church’s website, lds.org. Smith attracted adherents who followed him first to Ohio, then to Missouri, where the faith’s belief in polygamy and its opposition to slavery were unpopular.
Persecution forced the group to move to Illinois, where they built their city and named it Nauvoo, according to the history section on the church website. In 1844, while imprisoned for destroying an opposition printing press, Smith was killed by a mob that attacked the jail.
In 1857, the new leader, Brigham Young, led Smith’s remaining followers west in covered wagons pulled by oxen. As they came out of the Wasatch Mountains into the Salt Lake Valley in July, Young declared: “It is enough. This is the right place.”
The faithful pulling handcarts came after Young. Many of them were converts from England and Europe. Some of their descendents took part in the trek in Lee.
Rachel Reid of Hampton, New Brunswick, is originally from West Jordan, Utah, and is expecting a baby in November. Her ancestors were baptized into the Mormon church in England. After immigrating to the U.S., they pulled handcarts across the plains to Salt Lake City.
“I’m a seventh-generation church member,” she said. “Trek always makes me reflect on what they went through because of their faith. The challenge for me is trying to keep up with the youth. I don’t walk as much as most.”
The field in which the group camped on Aug. 5 is owned by church member Mike Thurlow. He got permission from abutting landowners and the clubs that maintain the ATV trails to use the property.
The intense thunderstorm took Thurlow and other organizers by surprise.
“Because of the storm and the lightning, we had to evacuate the whole group to Lee Academy for the night on Tuesday night [Aug. 4],” Thurlow, who is a trustee at the school, said. “The Lee Fire Department stepped up and helped us out and the school sent up two buses for us. Really hadn’t planned for something like that storm.”
Thurlow, who considers his mother and grandmother to be local pioneers in the faith, can’t trace his roots to ancestors in the first trek but said that participating in it puts him in touch emotionally with church founders.
“My grandmother and mother joined the LDS church in Lee in 1950 and 1952, respectively,” he said. “So, I don’t have pioneers that go back to the 1800s, but my mother and grandmother were pioneers of the church right here in this area that helped establish the church here — not in the West but in the East.”