IAT Trail Work.

2010 December 2
by admin

After a long time on the road, I’ve landed in Maine. I was raised here, and it is a phenomenal state for many reasons. I’ll post more about the unique parts about Maine later. To cement and celebrate my first legal residence in more than a year, I’ve started to volunteer with the Maine Chapter of the International Appalachian Trail Association. The International Appalachian Trail is a unique and separate trail that picks up where the Appalachian Trail stops at Baxter State Park in Maine, and continues north to Cap Gaspe, Canada, and on across the oceans to Scotland, Iceland, and theoretically, down to Morocco! The IAT follows the influence (geological and cultural) of the Appalachians, joining different cultures, countries, and landscapes together into an epic pilgrimage. Can you tell I’m excited by this? Recently, Dick Anderson, president of the Maine Chapter of the IAT, gathered a little group to head up to northern Maine, to correct an issue that had been plaguing hikers along a section of trail right along the US/Canada Border. Since the trail was constructed there, a busy beaver managed to dam a small brook that ran harmlessly across the trail, turning the brook into a 4-foot deep swamp that completely obliterated the trail, and would require a 12 mile(!) detour to circumnavigate. After checking with the relevant state agencies, landowners, and politely informing the border patrol of our planned activities (this is no joke, a Maine IAT Chapter member scouting the site a few weeks ago walked out of the woods only to be circled by a helicopter, and was met at his car by a few serious, but polite, Border Patrol-ers) we headed up to Mars Hill, Maine. About 5 hours from Southern Maine, Mars Hill is a world away. Where southern Maine is relatively populous, and the climate is moderated by the ocean, Northern Maine is…..big and open. So few live up north that the land is largely divided into 10 mile by 10 mile squares called “townships,” and given numbers rather than names. Can you imagine telling someone you grew up in TW 102?

The road out of Mars Hill, ME.  Wind project visable in the distance..

The road out of Mars Hill, ME. Wind project visable in the distance..

As we zipped up the highway, the sun set, and I began to think about a moose wandering out on the road. Maine children are not told stories about “bogey men,” but about what happens to inattentive drivers that hit moose. Tales are usually embellished with details about antler impalement, for better effect. After a few hours on the road, we stopped for coffee and Dick hollered “Jesus, did you see the size of that moose? About 3 steps off the highway!” I chugged my gas-station coffee and began to pray softly. After another uneventful few hours of travel, we arrived in the hamlet of Mars Hill, which consists of a single Maine street, bordered by charming buildings that looked at least a hundred years old, including the inestimable “Al’s Diner.” Mars Hill is in Aroostook County, one of the largest and least counties populous in Maine. Referred to as simply “the county,” the area has huge open fields, towering, lonely churches, and friendly people. Canada is just a few steps away, and the border here runs through back-yards and even a few houses. After a crushing meal at Al’s, we retired for the night.  My room-mate, Don Hudson, Maine Conservation luminary and former Executive Director of the Chewonki Foundation, shared some bio-diesel tips and tricks with me (yet another future post). Bright and early found us back at Al’s, where I enjoyed some of the best blueberry pancakes I’ve had in some time (“Maine blueberries, the little sweet ones,” the waitress confided).

Breakfast at Al's Diner.

Breakfast at Al's Diner.

After a few too many cups of coffee, we set out, driving past the summit of Mars Hill itself, with it’s majestic windmills turning slowly in the 17-degree air. Leaving the main road, we dug into a few inches of fresh snow and headed onto a dirt road paralleling the  border and a farmers field. ready to head outEveryone suited up against the 17-degree morning and we headed into the woods. Walking through a narrow corridor of trees, I saw that the clearing extended as far as I could see, and that every couple thousand yards a simple stone marker stood. One side of the marker said “US,” and the other “Canada.”

The official marker of the Border

The official marker of the Border


Dam before breach.

Though it was just a nice, ordinary forest, and a little boggy underfoot, being right on the border lent the morning an exciting feeling. I felt a childish curiosity, a kind of “You mean that tree over there is in Canada?”-feeling. After a quarter-mile, we reached the site of the beaver dam. Where the trail passes through a low point, beavers had long ago erected a dam more than 100 feet long, turning a small stream into a massive muck pit 3-feet deep. Despite days of sub-freezing weather, the air was rapidly warming and the ice that covered the muck cracked and sagged disturbingly as our party walked across it. As the youngest member of the party, with the least beaver-dam-removal experience, I hung back and let the group determine the the best spot to breach it. Thankfully, David Rand had come in a few weeks ago to scout the site, and found a likely spot quickly. In minutes, we were all knee-deep in frozen mud, and set to work with a number of implements of destruction (a fire rake, shovels, pick axes, loppers, hatchets, etc..). As I was wrenching handfuls of sticks, I marveled at the construction of the dam, Though it had not been occupied for several years (Dick, a seasoned trapper, determined this with certainty), it was still watertight, holding back a sizable pond. The land on the “dry” side of the dam was 3-4 feet lower than the frozen surface of the pond it had created, so when we opened a chink in the sturdy mud-and-sticks wall, a gout of muddy water poured forth with considerable force. It felt good to demolish it, I must admit, and better because I know what it’s like to walk through waist-deep mud in the middle of a 20-mile day.



Draining this segment of trail will ease the journey of hikers that come to appreciate the beauty of Maine, and hopefully motivate a few to become passionate stewards of these great lands. There aren’t many instances where those with a deep conservation ethic can gain such legitimate enjoyment from an act of destruction, so I cherish them when they happen!

As we enlarged the breech, the volume of water pouring out tripled, and the ice, no longer supported by water, started to boom and crack, collapsing and fracturing.

The Ice began to collapse.

The Ice began to collapse.

Without reliable ice to walk back on,our exit from the woods took twice as long, but it was with a self-satisfied swagger that our band emerged from the border swath.

On the way home, Dick took the occasion to purchase 200 lbs of potatoes for a shelter in Portland, Maine. I was amazed that, up in “the County” they cost about $.02 a pound! Payment too, was a novel experience. There was a little box on the counter to stuff your cash in.

It’s not often that a 24-hour period of my life occasions a trip to another country, 10 hours of driving, the purchase of 200 lbs of food for a charitable endeavor, trail maintenance, draining a pond, and taking a hike, so I thought it was worth documenting here.

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