Last week in Lee, 140 teenagers and 50 adults found out how tough the trek their spiritual forebears took across the country might have been when it rained overnight Wednesday and most of the day Thursday.
One goal of the pioneer trek is to give teenagers a better understanding of what early members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints endured when they walked to Utah, pulling everything they owned in handcarts.
Sections of the ATV trails they used for the re-enactment, held every four years, were covered in ankle-deep puddles, and the “pioneers” had to pull the hand carts up a long, steep hill to reach the final encampment.
“It was so much harder than I thought it would be,” Eleanor Erickson, 16, of Bucksport said. “I was drenched even though I had a poncho on. To keep the rain out of my eyes, I had to pull the hood of the poncho over them. I kept stepping in puddles I couldn’t see.”
The experience gave her a better understanding of what the early members of the church went through.
“Their faith must have been really strong to make the choice to go to Utah and to go through that,” Eleanor said.
The LDS church, whose members are also known as Mormons, was founded after Joseph Smith had a vision in which God and Jesus Christ appeared to him in 1820 in upstate New York. The angel Moroni revealed to Smith three years later the location of gold tablets that contained what would be published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon, according to the church’s website, ids.org. Smith attracted devotees who followed him first to Ohio, then to Missouri. There, the faith’s belief in polygamy and its opposition to slavery were unpopular.
Persecution from officials in Missouri 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. Smith was killed in 1844 by a mob that attacked the jail where he was imprisoned for destroying an opposition printing press.
Brigham Young, the new leader, led Smith’s remaining followers farther west in 1857 in covered wagons pulled by oxen. As they came out of the Wasatch Mountains into the Salt Lake Valley in July of that year, Young declared: “It is enough. This is the right place.”
The faithful pulling handcarts followed after Young. Many of them were converts from England and Europe, who endured difficult sea journeys before heading west. While just 10 percent of church members who went to Salt Lake City in the mid-19th century pulled handcarts, they have become an important symbol in the culture.
Eleanor and her family are members of the LDS church in Ellsworth. She, her 14-year-old brother Zach and their parents, Matthew, 55, and Joey Erickson, 44, participated in this year’s pioneer trek, which drew people from around the state. Four years ago, the Ericksons participated in a similar trek with the oldest of their six children, Zoe Erickson, 20, and Emily Erickson, 18.
In 2015, the group was forced to spend one night in Lee Academy due to a thunderstorm that included lightning. This year, the trek ended one day early.
Designed for 14- to 18-year-olds, the re-enactments are sponsored by Mormon churches around the world. Youth are assigned to a married couple, but not their parents, who are their “Ma” and “Pa” for the trek. Participants dress as their pioneer ancestors did. Everyone must take a turn pulling, and sometimes pushing, the wooden handcarts, which are loaded with sleeping bags, tents, clothing, water, mess kits and cooking equipment.
Zach Erickson discovered there is an art to loading cart.
“The first day we had all the heaviest stuff at the front of the cart,” he said. “Because of that, we had to push down on the handle and then pull. The next day we redistributed the weight and it was much easier.”
The Maine group traveled more than 20 miles in four days over ATV trails in Lee and camped on land owned by church member Mike Thurlow. He received permission to use the property from abutting landowners and the clubs that maintain the ATV trails.
They didn’t go without some 21st century amenities, including portable toilets, sleeping bags, plastic tarps, metal fire rings, modern footwear and raingear. The tents and tarps did not keep the sleeping bags used by many participants from getting wet. The re-enactment ended Thursday, after three days, instead of Friday as planned because organizers could not dry out 40 sleeping bags by Thursday night.
Today, there are about 11,000 Mormons in Maine in 26 congregations. LDS missionaries in Maine arrived by canoe and crossed the Piscataqua River in 1832, according to information on the church website. They sought converts by going door to door, as missionaries still do today across the globe, and started a congregation in Saco. By 1835, Maine had nearly 320 church members, but the growth slowed dramatically as many went to Salt Lake City.
The pioneer trek does leave a lasting impression on the teens who take part. Zoe Erickson, now serving as a missionary in El Salvador, said in an email to her dad that “sometimes we don’t want to keep going. We are so tired and we don’t see the point but it doesn’t really matter what we want. It just matters what the Lord wants because he always wants what’s best for us. … Sometimes, it’s hard to see the end, but we know the journey is worth it. We just have to keep walking and trust God to guide us.”