Nearly three decades ago, Dick Anderson, a former commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, had a dream of a trail that connected with the venerable Appalachian Trail, the footpath that runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin, and continued through Canada where the mountain range comes to an abrupt end at the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The concept for the International Appalachian Trail was unveiled at a press conference on April 22, 1994, Earth Day. The trail was envisioned as wending its way through Maine, New Brunswick and Quebec, linking the United States and Canada.
This year, the trail celebrates its 25th anniversary. Not only does it link Maine and Maritime Canada, it now has sections in Europe and North Africa.
“It’s been absolutely amazing,” Anderson said in a phone interview this week.
Anderson, who was conservation commissioner under former Gov. Joe Brennan, said he was never a hiker or camper, but he liked the idea of a trail that crossed international boundaries to show that they are human constructs.
He speaks of bees and other animals crossing back and forth over the U.S.-Canada border without regard to the division. The International Appalachian Trail purposely follows the border for several miles for this reason.
On a windswept bluff next to a lighthouse at Cap Gaspe in June 1999, government officials from Quebec and New Brunswick and trail representatives from as far away as Georgia talked of the International Appalachian Tail’s ability to unite the two countries and stimulate tourism in both.
“Just a few years ago, the International Appalachian Trail seemed like an impossible dream,” Laurent Tremblay, then a representative of Quebec’s secretary of parks, said at the ceremony dedicating the trail’s northern terminus.
Now, it “transcends human and political borders,” he said.
The trail has also transcended international obstacles. Rather than ending in Quebec, the trail now spans three continents. A ferry takes hikers to Newfoundland and Labrador, where they can continue the trek.
There is geological evidence that the Appalachian Mountains, which span the east coast of North America, continued into Europe before the two continents broke apart. There are now IAT chapters in Greenland, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Wales, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Morocco that recognize and re-establish the past link.
Earlier this year, Larry Luxenberg wrote of hiking the IAT in Morocco. “From the time we’d gotten off the plane in Marrakesh, nearly everything we saw or did was something strange and wonderful and nothing like what I’d be doing back home,” he wrote. “The mountains are beautiful and the people hospitable and the food exceptional.”
Although the trail now traces the globe, it didn’t have an easy start in Maine. Many private woodland owners and Baxter State Park weren’t enthusiastic about the new trail. Since its early days, much of the land it crosses is northern Maine has changed hands or been preserved. The first 32 miles of the trail pass through what is now the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, which was created in 2016 and lies to the east of Baxter State Park. Other sections make use of ATV trails and a multi-use trail on an old railroad bed in Aroostook County.
While some in Maine were slow to embrace the trail, the government of Quebec has used revenue it collects from wind farms in the province to improve the trail and draw visitors with cabins and other amenities. Guide services offer trips and assistance to visitors. Those efforts have been successful to the point that overuse of the trail is a concern, showing just how popular the IAT has become.
As it marks its 25th anniversary, the International Appalachian Trail continues to present opportunities for growth and cross-border understanding, around the world and here in Maine.