The International Appalachian Trail

by Wayne Heinze


“Of the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratification of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth…” James Joyce, Ulysses

Rugged coastal cliffsThere exists an International Appalachian Trail (IAT), a continuation of our iconic Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States. It extends along a path from Mount Katahdin in Maine, through the Maritimes, Greenland, and Ireland and the UK on its way to its terminus in Morocco. Portions of the IAT exist from Scandinavia through Western Europe as well. The trail traces as best it can, the former mountain range that existed in the epoch of the supercontinent Pangea, which our present day Appalachians were a part of. Plate tectonics rendered that land mass into the now familiar continental configuration humanity has called home, filling the gaps between modern day continents and islands with sea water. So while the IAT can be accurately traced and mapped, it cannot be hiked in its entirety. Small price I think, for how cool a concept the trail really is.

Although I have not come close to through hiking the original Appalachian Trail, I have hiked in various segments in most of the states that it passes through in the US. And most recently, I had an opportunity to spend some time in Ireland to hike the International Appalachian Trail where it “comes ashore” as it were, on the Emerald Isle.That particular spot, the beginning of the Irish portion of the trail, is at Slieve League on the often storm tossed North Atlantic coast. It travels from the impressive coastal cliffs of Slieve League Mountain (Sliabh Liag in Gaelic) in County Donegal, making it’s way through the Blue Stack and Sperrin Mountains, and reaching it’s terminus at Antrim in Northern Ireland.

The IAT in many areas is in it’s infancy, and information about it is not readily available at this point in time in Ireland. Other major trail systems are well marked in both the Republic and Northern Ireland, and I’m sure the IAT will eventually follow suit here as well. But for anyone interested in the current configuration of the trail, the Ulster IAT website is a good place to check it out. But the oceanic trailhead at Slieve League and the surrounding area, has always been, as they say there, a brilliant place to explore, long before it’s connection to the International Appalachian Trail.

Slieve League is less well known, and less visited. than the massive sea cliffs at Ireland’s impressive Cliffs of Moher National Park farther south along the coast. Although lacking the visitor amenities that exist at Moher, the more remote Slieve League is actually the more precipitous landscape. Located on the ocean near Teelin on the west coast of Ireland, Slieve League cliffs are actually a amongst the highest in all of Europe. After spending several days hiking and clambering over smaller rock formations on the Fanad Peninsula to the north,we tackled Slieve League on a breezy but uncharacteristically (for Donegal) clear day in August time, as the locals refer to the eighth month.

There were some aspects of Slieve League that were reminiscent of Point Reyes, California. If you have ever driven out to visit Point Reyes Lighthouse, you noticed the cows grazing in the fields during your journey towards the sea. Just replace the cows with sheep, and you have an idea of the approach to Slieve League. But while you won’t find the heifers actually along those California cliffs, the agile Irish sheep are found grazing all over Slieve League. Even the most wind swept and chancy purchase along the rocky slopes are utilized by the sheep transversing the coastal mount.

I can’t say whether or not the sheep enjoyed the sweeping panoramas of the North Atlantic or the raw beauty of the massive sea cliffs as much as I did. But they certainly focused on the foliage, and so did I, but for different reasons. The sheep were feasting on the same heathers, thistles, and wild carrots that slowly drew my attention away from the seascapes. I find I can often assimilate only do much panoramic majesty while outdoors, before my attention is drawn to more minute aspects of the environment. Looking for “organic existences concealed” as Joyce wrote. But existences concealed not necessarily in crevices or cracks, but hiding in plain sight, obscured merely by perception and a willingness to look away from one form of beauty to another. Beauty not of a lesser value, just a lesser scale. Being able to see the forest and the trees.

Trailhead on cliff above oceanI accessed Slieve League from the lower parking area, roughly at the base of the split mountain that rose before me. It is a longer route, and requires more effort, but if one cannot handle the grades and contours of this portion of paved track ,it would be unwise to plan to hike the more difficult portions of the trails here that rise from the upper parking area. Especially under wet and windy conditions, unsteady or unfit hikers could truly be at risk, and there are sad tales. This is especially so as you advance to the higher, narrow, ridge lines. This is hiking, not mountain climbing, but it is not a closely monitored National Park like the Cliffs of Moher. And if one stumbles on Slieve League, there are few soft landing spots. And the length of two football field is a very long way to fall. On the way to the trail heads there are sweeping coastal views: to the south, towards the harbor mouth at Teelin and eventually to the north along the sheer cliffs plunging into the foamy sea some 600 meters below. My longer route had given me a chance to warm and stretch my muscles and tendons before ascending the rocky paths to even more spectacular views of the coastline. As I hiked, I filled my lungs deeply with the strangely soft and fragrant Irish air, here enhanced even further by the sea breezes,

view of hills and ocean along trailAfter climbing some distance, I sought out a place to sit and observe the hills and moors bordering the coastal cliffs. Here and there, tiny bubbling brooks tinkled downslope, and shallow glacial ponds afforded a habitat for a few curlew. Ravens filled the air with intermittent raucous explosions of sound, and terns, gulls and bitterns, rode the waves below and soared along the cliff faces. I made my way out into a small, sloped, rock strewn meadow and found a suitable flat chalky rock to sit on and observe. Lichens and mosses of many hues seemed to be painted on small outcroppings of rock like minute Jackson Pollock paintings. Looking seaward, the North Atlantic was blue, choppy and deserted over countless nautical miles. Only a couple of small tourist boats that appeared late in the afternoon from nearby Teelin Harbor, broke the hypnotic undulations of the sea. The sound of crashing waves far below along the cliffs was almost muted at times by distance and the constant sounds of the winds.

As scientist/ author Hope Jahren noted in her wonderful book Lab Girl, “A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet”. I thought of this while sitting in this harsh, windswept seaside environment, and I was moved to reflect on not only the beauty of this place, and in Ireland in general, but on the surprising local fauna or more accurately the lack of same. The visible lack of mammals in particular. For with me amongst the heathers and thistles, were not deer, hares, hedgehogs, or weasels, but sheep. During the past eight days spent in what should have been prime wildlife viewing areas, a single rabbit was the only non bird or fish we encountered. There had been no shortage of avian life, and ravens, magpies, jackdaws, terns and gulls were common, and here added their calls in chorus, above the background sounds of wind and wave at Slieve League.

But although not wild in anyone’s mind except probably their own, the sheep that populated even the most unlikely areas of the slopes and moors were fascinating. These sheep are “color coded” by paint markings so that the shepherds (unseen but inevitable) can keep track of the individuals in their flocks. Since the sheep wander freely on on public lands like Slieve League, it added a necessary but bizarre curiosity in an already unexpected encounter. The sheep were extremely agile, bounding from rock to rock on downslopes like overweight mountain goats. With relatively barrel shapes and spindly legs, an image of Babe Ruth rounding the bases came to mind.

white mountain goat along trailI was snapped out of my reverie by the realization that I was under close scrutiny myself, by a pair of burly rams slowly approaching upslope. I realized that the path I had taken out into the moor was a sheep trail, and the rams were coming to reclaim the right of way for the lambs and ewes in their flock. At first I was going to sit quietly and see if they passed me by without incident. However as they approached more closely, the massive curved horns they sported suggested another course of action might be more prudent. As I slowly backed away and exited the pathway stage right, the two rams seemed to relax and slowly angled off in an opposite vector. Almost at once, an enormous ewe astride a boulder began bleating loudly, alerting the other sheep in her small flock that it was time to move. Having climbed a large granite outcropping myself for a better (read safer) view, I watched as the flock loosely gathered and made its way across some scree to a higher meadow.

As I started my descent back along the narrow ridge line I had ascended previously, my impressions of Slieve League, this gem on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, began to evolve. While I still held in awe the geology of this oceanfront ecosystem, I pondered how we fit into all this, as surely humanity had put its mark here as well as the elements. And it was the sheep that came to represent to me this interaction of humanity and nature here, that in fact exists everywhere.

Scientists (like the aforementioned Hope Jahren) in the field of geobiology, study the interaction and impacts upon each other of the earth and it’s biosphere. As humans are certainly part of the biosphere of our planet, I guess feeling that at Slieve League was a natural, although hardly original, perception on my part. And in these interactions we have precipitated, and will continue to do, not only people but environments, are often changed. Maybe something along the lines of the Butterfly Effect, or for that every action there is a reaction.That is perhaps yet another of the hidden aspects or concealments of nature that James Joyce was thinking of when he penned the introductory quote above.

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