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PEAK EXPERIENCES
THE INTERNATIONAL APPALACHIAN TRAIL CONNECTS MAINE TO THE ATLANTIC

From our viewpoint in Forillon National Park in Quebec, the cliff drops 200 feet into the rolling waves of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Nesting razorbills, cormorants, kittywakes and murres swoop from their cliffside condos into the surf for a seafood buffet. Gray seals laze on a rock just offshore. We drove to the viewpoint, but we could have walked . . . all the way from Georgia.

Most hikers will tell you that the Appalachian Trail ends in Maine in Baxter State Park, or more specifically atop Mount Katahdin. That was true until 2000. Just as the Appalachian Mountains recognize no national borders and extend into Canada, the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) now continues for 687 miles through New Brunswick and Quebec. It follows 3,000-foot ridgetops, drops into forested valleys and treks along cobblestone beaches and through small fishing villages. It finally ends at the edge of a cliff at the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula where the mountains plunge abruptly into the sea.

We first pick up the IAT in Gaspe National Park in Quebec, about halfway between Maine and the Atlantic. Park naturalist Jean-Philippe Chartrand describes the trail as we take a short warm-up hike to the Lac aux Americains, a glacially-carved lake surrounded by jagged snow-covered peaks.

"To connect to the IAT, we only had to add five kilometers on each end of the 100 kilometers of trails in the park," he tells us. We pass one of the 13 camping huts in the park. The huts and campsites along the IAT are spaced about 12 km apart. Each enclosed hut has eight bunks, tables and a wood stove complete with woodpile.

"Through hikers can send provisions by a transport service to every other hut for a fee or we'll take their supplies to any hut in the park that has vehicular access for free," Chartrand says.

At the lake, rainbow trout dart through the shallows when we wade in to cool our feet. The mirror reflection and mountain backdrop make me feel as though I'm in a landscape painting.

Like the Appalachian Trail, a number of existing trails were stitched together to create the Canadian extension. From Mount Katahdin, the trail continues north for 100 miles and enters Canada at Perth-Andover. I chuckle at the image of a custom official at a trailside kiosk with a rubber stamp and a hand-raised bar blocking the trail.

Once into Canada, the trail travels for 170 miles through New Brunswick and summits Mount Carleton, the 2,690-foot high point in the province. The trail enters Quebec and travels north across the Gaspe Peninsula. It follows high ridges through the Chic-Choc Mountains and over Mount Jacques-Cartier at 4,160 feet, then treks beaches and coastal mountains to Cap-Gaspe, the end of the line. About 80 percent of the route follows hiking trails in national parks and preserves, the remainder uses abandoned or regular roadways.

After visiting the lake, we hike a mountain tail through a spruce-birch forest to a windy ridgeline. The forests here more closely resemble the Pacific Northwest than the Appalachians or Alleghenies. At the top of a barren knob, a platform offers a resting place. The view encompasses mountain tops above treeline, 3000 feet at this latitude, and deep, wooded valleys. The granite ridges slice into the blue sky and row upon row of hazy ridges, reminiscent of the Great Smokies, disappear toward the horizon like frozen waves.

While exploring Gaspe National Park, we could camp in the two campgrounds; instead, we stay in the park lodge, Gite du Mont-Albert, which has motel-style rooms, chalets and a restaurant with gourmet cuisine. Like the national parks in the United States, Quebec parks offer levels of wilderness experience.

The trail follows the River du Mont Saint-Pierre north out of the mountains to the Saint Lawrence River, then alternates between open beach and mountain trails. Minke whales and fishing boats patrol offshore and small villages line crescent bays. La Martre Lighthouse, one of four that once stood guard along the coastal route, stands on a high cliff overlooking the Saint Lawrence River. We rejoin the trail in the village of Mont-Saint-Pierre for a pleasant riverside stroll.

For our most challenging trek, the trail to the Pointe-a-la-Renmmee waterfall and campsite, we trudge up more steps than the Washington Monument, then ford a rushing stream by clinging to a rope stretched over the creek. A 12-inch diameter log spans the next stream, but I decide to wade across. We can hear our reward thundering in the distance. The waterfall plummets over a 100-foot cliff into a deep gorge. The campground has an A-frame shelter and a tent platform.

The IAT holds surprises all along the way, but we didn't expect to find a B&B with an oceanside view and a music theater right on the trail. At the village en chanson de Petite-Vallee, we check into La Maison Lebreux. Instead of caring for her 17 children, Denise Lebreux now caters to the needs of hikers. After a delicious meal and a golden sunset over the waves, we attend a concert in the hall next door. A jazz combo from Switzerland, visiting for the Montreal Jazz Festival, plays world-class jazz in the tiny seaside hideaway.

Three years after its official completion, the IAT still remains a discovery zone for most hikers, especially the non-French speakers on the Quebec section -- best take a pocket dictionary so you can read the maps and trail signs. Only about a dozen hikers complete the entire Maine to Cape-Gaspe route each year.

Eb Eberhart, at age 60, hiked from Key West on the Florida Trail to the Appalachian Trail and through to the end of the IAT, then back again two years later. His book, 10 Million Steps, describes his 1998 epic.

Through hikers would scoff at our week-long trek along the trail. We stayed in comfortable inns, attended a concert, ate fresh seafood every night, and missed the tallest peaks. But standing on the cliff overlooking the Gulf of Saint Lawrence with the cry of sea birds in my ears and the trail stretching all the way to Georgia at my back, I savor my own rewards. You don't have to summit the highest mountains to have peak experiences on the IAT.

If you go

For trail guides and maps, see the International Appalachian Trail website, www.cgmatane.qc.ca/siaiat/ or www.internationalat.org/SIAIAT/.

For hiking trails info in Quebec see www.tourisme-gaspesie.com (click Activities: Nature/Outdoors: Hiking). For a vacation planning guide to Quebec, contact Tourisme Quebec, (877) 266-5687, www.bonjourquebec.com. See www.campingquebec.com for camping sites in Quebec. For information about the trail in New Brunswick and a vacation guide, see www.tourismnewbrunswick.ca.

Reservations:

Canadian parks require reservations for camping or lodging.

Forillon National Park, (418) 368-5505, parcscanada-que@pc.gc.ca, www.pc.gc.ca/forillon;

Parc national de la Gaspesie, (866) 727-2427, www.sepaq.com/En/index.cfm

For Parks Canada information, see http://parkscanada.gc.ca, e-mail information@pc.gc.ca.

Getting there:

Fly to Quebec City and rent a car. Follow Highway 132 north along the St. Lawrence River for 120 miles to the first connection to the IAT at Matane. The trail parallels the highway for the next 160 miles to Gaspe with loop trail options and networks of trails in Gaspesie and Forillon national parks.