Water Trails

Paddling Paths of America
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The splash of your paddle and a bird call is all you hear: solitude. You're on the water, following a route paddled by countless others.

Water has always been a connector: a trader's route, an explorer's journey, a traveller's escape. Nowadays, with the boom of canoeing and kayaking, it's an increasingly popular form of outdoor recreation. Following the lead of organized hiking trails, in recent years organizations have emerged to mark and maintain water trails.

North American Water Trails, Inc. is a national coalition of organizations and individuals committed to creating water trails. They define a water trail as". . . a stretch of river, a shoreline, or an ocean that has been mapped out with the intent to create an educational, scenic, and challenging experience for recreational canoers and kayakers." A water trail can be almost everything a hiking trail can be: short or long, primarily historic or scenic, challenging or laid-back.

One thing that all of these groups have in common is a mission of environmental stewardship: citizens actively care for the landscape and educate others on ways to cherish it. According to Dave Getchell, author of the Modern Water Trails, a guide to establishing and maintaing recreational waterways, "We're stressing the stewardship in other words taking care of the resource and doing everything as low impact as possible."

An important way to learn about a body of water is to simply be in it, which is where the recreational dimension of water trails enters the picture.

What are some good water trails? The Maine Island Trail is a excellent place to start. This is a 325-mile long route along the Maine coast. It touches down on round-about 95 islands (hence the name). The water trail organization works with both public land officials and private property owners to allow access to the islands.

The Hudson River Water Trail is a venture up from New York Harbor to the Erie and Champlain canal system. The trail takes the paddler past historic homes and monuments, palisade cliffs, and wild forests.

Down the coast, the Chesapeake Bay is a hotbed of water trail activity. There are at least three water trail organizations doing work in different areas. Volunteers are establishing the Potomac Water Trail in tandem with the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, creating a hybrid hiking and boating trail. The proposed Chesapeake Tidewater Trail will ring the outer edge of the Chesapeake Bay. The Susquehanna River Trail reaches from the interior bay deep into forested Pennsylvania.

In and around Chicago, a group called the Access Project is trying hard to develop trails and create access sites to 10 river systems in northeastern Illinois. They've done an bang-up job of establishing a variety of paddling opportunities for everyone from muddling families to rugged experts.

Seattle's moody Puget Sound is the home of the Cascadia Marine Trail, which travels for 140 miles from the Olympic Peninsula to the Canadian border. Along the way there's many enticing stopovers and camping spots.

And there's more, much more. GORP has profiled 31 water trails in the lower 48. Pick your side of the continent:

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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