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July / August 2003

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On the Trail of Maine's Ice Age


On the Trail of Maine's Ice Age
Proposed route will highlight evidence of the last glacial recession that created the distinctive Down East landscape

About the Photo: Hal Borns, professor of geological sciences and Quaternary studies at UMaine, hopes to finish compilation of a driving tour map of the state's Ice Age trail this year. One of the sites on the trail will be the location pictured above in Cherryfield.

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Like a sea of green breaking against the tree lines, the wild blueberry barrens stretch for miles in Washington County, Maine. The rolling landscape carpeted in the low-growing plants is dotted by boulders, some the size of pickup trucks.

From the vantage of a ridge snaking through the fields, geologist Harold Borns looks out across the panorama near Cherryfield, six miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, and sees evidence of a very different setting. He describes a time, almost 14,000 years ago, when ocean waves broke against sheer ice cliffs and rivers poured off the edge of a dying ice sheet, carrying streams thick with sediment into coastal waters.

"This was the beginning of Maine as we know it today. Everything was locked in the ice or under water. The first point of land to appear was probably the top of Cadillac Mountain (in Maine's Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island)," says Borns, a professor of geological sciences and member of the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute.

As the ice retreated year after year, the sea moved in and covered the land. Today, the shells and fossils of marine animals that once colonized the sea floor in an Arctic-like ocean are analyzed to determine where and when the creatures lived, and in what conditions.

Coupled with the landforms that stretch along Down East Maine, the fossils have given Borns and his colleagues important clues about how the ice collapsed, the sea invaded and the climate changed as the last Ice Age came to an end.

The resulting landscape still bears the scars. It has become a scientific treasure, one of a few places in the world, says Borns, where the signs that were left by the death throes of an ice sheet are so clear and indelible.

Borns has spent much of his life following the clues left by the last great ice sheets in North America, Antarctica and Europe. Now he and a group of private citizens and government agency representatives are working on a plan to share what he and other scientists have learned in Maine. The goal is to create Maine's Downeast Ice Age Trail, an idea that could have economic and educational benefits.

"This trail is about sea level rise, climate change and even archaeology," says Borns. "We have more than 40 potential sites. All of them are based on research that we've done right here over the past 30 years or so." Much of that work has provided educational projects for UMaine students and been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation.

The trail idea started with Pam Person of Orland, Maine, co-chair of the multi-sector Education on Energy and Climate Change Workgroup of Maine Global Climate Change. Inspired in 1999 by a similar project in Wisconsin, Person knew that such a trail could be a source of regional pride and attract a growing segment of tourists who are interested in the environment.

"Maine has better, more distinct, undisturbed glacial features than Wisconsin does," says Person, "and the University of Maine and the Maine Geological Survey have some of the most respected glacial geologists in the world. We wanted the public to know about them."

Hal Borns
Hal Borns, professor of geological sciences and Quaternary studies at UMaine, hopes to finish compilation of a driving tour map of the state's Ice Age trail this year. One of the sites on the trail will be the location pictured above in Cherryfield.

As Borns and Person envision it, the trail will start on Cadillac Mountain and take travelers to other Ice Age sites in Acadia National Park and on Mount Desert Island: glacially carved mountains, lakes and the only true fjord on the East Coast, Somes Sound. The trail will proceed to a sand and gravel delta left by the melting ice sheet near Ellsworth.

East toward Lubec is a turning point in Ice Age history. In this area, the proposed route will cross moraines (ridges of rock and soil pushed ahead of the glacier), exposed glacially carved bedrock and wide deltas left by rivers flowing off the ice. However, the landscape changes north of this line.

It's clear, says Borns, that the ice sheet didn't retreat all at once. In fact, the melting was interrupted by a thousand-year cold snap known as the Younger Dryas period. The ice sheet began to grow, then melted again in northern Maine. But because it happened so quickly, the ice sheet left behind none of the huge deltas and end moraines that exist closer to the coast.

"What we see along the trail to Lubec records a history of deglaciation that reflects oceanic atmospheric reorganization in the North Atlantic. This whole area is of worldwide interest. Scientists have come from Europe, Canada and other parts of the world to study here," says Borns.

The idea of Maine's Downeast Ice Age Trail has already generated interest from state agencies, local organizations and Maine's congressional delegation. Mike Hermann, a cartographer at the Canadian-American Center at UMaine, is developing a map showing 32 possible roadside sites of interest. The project is featured in Hiking America's Geology, an illustrated book published by the National Geographic Society.

The Downeast Ice Age Trail could bring new visitors to the region, according to Fred Cook of Gouldsboro, executive director of the Downeast Acadia Regional Tourism Council. "We envision the trail as part of a package that will entice people who visit Acadia National Park to go to the Schoodic Peninsula, Campobello and other places," he says.

In addition, Borns notes, the hope is to eventually extend the trail through Calais to the Bay of Fundy, creating an international attraction.

Borns and Person have formed a steering committee to promote the trail and seek funds to develop roadside vistas, signage and maps. They are hoping that detailed trail maps will be available in 2004.

by Nick Houtman
July-August, 2003

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