There are ancient bits of the Appalachian Mountains scattered on both sides of the Atlantic. As plate tectonics became a popular area for study among geologists in the 1970s, evidence emerged that 250 million years ago, when plates in the North Atlantic began to split, parts of mountain chains like the Appalachian were ripped apart as the supercontinent drifted on the molten rock below.
“The theory of plate tectonics explains how these mountains in the British Isles and Scandinavia and Canada and Maine all have a common origin,” Bob Marvinney, Maine’s state geologist, told the Portland Press Herald.
This notion, that the Appalachian Mountains aren’t only confined to the eastern portion of the United States, is the idea behind the International Appalachian Trail, an extension of the AT that was announced 25 years ago this week, as part of Earth Day celebrations in Maine.
Back in 1994, Maine hikers including Dick Anderson, the one-time commissioner of Maine’s Department of Conservation, Don Hudson, an outdoor education center president, and former Maine Gov. Joe Brennan, announced their intention to create a 750-mile stretch of trail that would run from Maine into Canada. The idea was to extend the AT from its northern terminus atop Maine’s Mt. Katahdin even further north along the Appalachians as they wind toward New Brunswick, Canada.
By 2000, they’d finished the trail extension, calling it the IAT, but they kept working to increase the length even further into Canada, and, eventually, overseas. Just two years later, representatives from the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador said they’d love to help push the trail through their backyard to where the Appalachians march toward the shores of the Atlantic.
As geologists continued to find evidence that mountains in other countries shared a common origin with the Appalachians before Pangea split millions of years ago, hikers in areas throughout the Atlantic basin learned about their home mountains’ Appalachian connection and reached out to the IAT’s founders to see about extending the trail overseas to their wilderness areas too.
Thus, in 2010, the IAT extended to the Nuussuaq Peninsula in Greenland. Shortly after, it also pushed to Scotland’s West Highland Way, officially marking the IAT’s jump into Europe.
“At the first press conference [in 1994], 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,” Hudson said.
Now, the IAT is more than 5,000 miles long, including the original 750 miles and an additional 600 linking the IAT to the sea in Canada, when combined with trail segments added in Europe and North Africa. The trail runs through parts of Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, and Morocco. When then entire IAT as planned now is completed, it could stretch more than 12,000 miles. If you’d like to hike the IAT in Canada, you’ll likely have big stretches all to yourself. It draws only a tiny fraction of the number of hikers the AT in the U.S. attracts.
Marvinney has hiked portions of the trail in Europe and found similarities in the rock structures, regardless of where he was, as it the ancient mountains had left their DNA scattered across the continents.
A conference and 25-year celebration will be held in Shin Pond, Maine, on May 2. Officials and hikers from trail groups and organizations throughout the Appalachians will attend, to share stories about the IAT, and plans for future development, as well as to examine the impact on local towns of an international trail system. Who knows, perhaps other countries will have learned of ancient connections to the Appalachians and more trail sections in more countries will be proposed.
“I think every country you go to, you’ll find something different about the trail,” Hudson said. “And that’s what’s so cool about it.”