The search for high ground had come down to this: Brook Lenker and Ben Nebroski were wading through neck-high stands of poison ivy, protecting their bare hands by holding them high above their heads like prisoners of war.

The two were looking for the highest — and driest — place on the Susquehanna River island to serve as a campground for those who follow.

“I imagine,” Nebroski said, kicking the dirt with his boot, “a lot of this vine mass on the ground is poison ivy.”

Undeterred, the two began visualizing what was to come: They staked out a camping area. They identified trails from the high ground to the edge of the island. They established a kitchen area. They marked a trail to a future bathroom area.

Beyond the thick mass of poison ivy, the dense stands of bamboo-like Japanese knotwood and the spreading Virginia creeper, Lenker envisioned the day the underbrush is cleared and this — and other Susquehanna River islands — will become a sanctuary for canoeists, kayakers and other boaters.

“One of our goals is to get non-traditional users to come out here and experience the wild,” said Lenker, of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, who is heading a coalition of government agencies and citizen groups working to develop the new Susquehanna River Trail.

The island is one of the stops on the trail, which is considered the Bay watersheds’s first “modern” river trail — a river that is, in effect, “packaged” to make it readily accessible to users.

The Susquehanna trail is leading a wave of enthusiasm for other water trails in the region. Efforts are under way in Maryland and Virginia; a water trail conference is planned for October; and the National Park Service has given a $10,000 grant to develop a Bay region water trail “action plan.” At the federal level, Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland is pushing legislation to support a watershedwide network of linked water trails.

Proponents see this as more than a recreational opportunity. To them, it is a way to build a bond between people and the resource. “It’s critical that people get out and explore their rivers and get involved on that personal level,” Lenker said. Paddlers will come away with a new appreciation of the river — and why it should be protected.

“They will,” Lenker predicted, “become better stewards of the river.”

Water trails are a natural for North America, where Native Americans invented the canoe to traverse its rivers. Canoes were quickly adopted by settlers who rapidly learned that two Indians in a canoe could whisk past four Europeans in a longboat.

In the next centuries, mountain men and voyagers turned the continent’s rivers into highways of commerce during the fur trade’s heyday. More recently, rivers have been used increasingly for recreation — groups such as the Boy Scouts have been taking canoe trips for years.

“Modern” water trails are essentially old water trails with better public relations. A designated water trail is packaged to make information about the river quickly accessible to the public. There are maps showing where people can put their water craft in and where they can take them out. The guides mark unique points of interest along the way and places where people can stop for a picnic or to camp.

Trails make arrangements for bathroom facilities and improved public access sites. Signs guide people in — and out — of the river.

Interest in the Bay and elsewhere has been fueled by two competing concerns — more people want to get in the water while access is becoming more difficult, especially as “informal” access points that have been been used for years are slowly being closed.

While the public owns actual the waterway, the shorelines that control the ability to get in and out of the water are often private. Along the Bay, access is in even shorter supply — only about 1 percent of its shoreline is publicly owned.

“The Chesapeake Bay is being developed,” said Franz Gimmler, vice president of North American Water Trails, a nonprofit organization that assists in water trail creation. “In the old days, you could probably go down to a farm and put in and nobody bothered you. Now the farm is subdivided, there are fences, and the homeowners don’t want people traipsing over their property. So more and more, it’s difficult to find a place to enter the water.”

At the same time, user pressure has increased. Sea kayaking is one of the fastest growing recreational activities in the country. And all other forms of boating are surging in popularity. In Virginia alone, the state is registering 5,000 new powerboats a year, said John Davy of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

“The demand has just skyrocketed,” said Davy, who also chairs the Bay Program’s Public Ac-cess Workgroup. “We’re seeing a major increase in the use of waterways and places where people are trying to get to the waterways to get on them.”

While water trails are sometimes viewed as the domain of people-powered craft, Davy and others see the po-tential for all manner of water craft, especially on the Bay and in its larger rivers.

Water trails also offer a means to manage that growing demand. They not only provide access, but can help manage access for the growing number of users. For example, overuse of a particular stretch of waterway can be controlled by limiting the size of a parking area at access sites. But the establishment of a water trail — and the accompanying literature and signs — can guide people to other access points that may not be far away. “It gives more choices,” Davy said.

A well-managed trail has spin-off benefits as well, proponents say. It can draw people who are unfamiliar with the river to an area, and educate them about the access points, stopovers and potential hazards along the way. That drawing potential can also boost tourism at local restaurants, bed and breakfasts, shops and attractions along the way.

“They come, they spend money getting there, they spend money in the area,” Gimmler said. “That’s all part of a water trail.”

In some cases, people foresee restaurants and bed and breakfasts along the water putting out docks to lure canoeists and boaters.

With an eye on such opportunities, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is working with businesses and local governments to develop a water trail in the Tangier Sound area that will link natural, historical and cultural sites.

“It’s been largely a paradise for hunters and fishermen,” said Gene Piotrowski, director of the DNR’s resource planning program. “We're looking at how we could get more people to enjoy this. It’s not too far from the Philadelphia and Washington metropolitan areas. We can get people to come in and spend — instead of a day — two or three days.”

Virginia officials are eying water trail opportunities along some of the state’s recreational waterways. And the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is promoting river trails throughout the state.

Others see similar potential on a regional scale. The National Park Service recently awarded a $10,000 grant to the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to begin developing a regional “action plan” to promote water trail development throughout the watershed. The effort is expected to get a boost this October when the North American Water Trails Conference takes place in the Bay watershed.

And Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes has introduced legislation in Congress to increase the National Park Service role in the Bay region. Among the goals of the bill is a network of water trails that would someday stretch from the Bay up its rivers.

“Just imagine,” Sarbanes said, “if you could link together in a coherent way the natural, historic, cultural and recreational sites all along the Chesapeake Bay, from its headwaters in the Susquehanna River all the way down to Virginia Beach, as it goes out in the Atlantic Ocean. You could really have a string of pearls on a necklace that would showcase the best of the Bay region.”

Indeed, water trails not only improve physical access to the Bay, but intellectual access as well. Guides and brochures call attention to significant historic and natural sites that boaters encounter along the way. “We work with the maxim that people value what they understand, and that they protect what they value,” said Bob Campbell, the Park Service liaison to the Bay Program, who has been working with Lenker.

The concept is simple: People who get on the water will learn to love it — and help it.

That is exactly what lead Judy Lathrup to begin efforts to create a water trail on the Potomac. “The more people on the water, the better,” she said.

Lathrup is the owner of Atlantic Canoe & Kayak Co. in Arlington, VA, where she not only teaches kayaking, but leads trips that explore natural and historical sites. Over time, she has grown concerned that some sites will be lost to development.

“I thought, let’s link it all together and raise the public’s awareness in a positive way,” she said. “I don’t want to fight battles and say ‘no development.’ I want to say, ‘Look at what an incredible place this is. We’re approaching 2000 and it’s not very developed. Let’s not screw it up now.’

“I think the best way to deliver that message is to get people out and to let them see.”

This raises an important paradox for river trails — drawing more people to the river, while at the same time protecting its resources.

As a result, an important element of modern water trails is creating a sense of stewardship on the river. People are encouraged to not only use the river, but to take care of it at the same time. “Low-impact” use is emphasized: People should carry out their trash, keep group sizes small, use only existing fire rings and so forth. People camping on islands along the Susquehanna trail are even instructed to carry out human waste in sealed containers.

To help drive that point home on the Susquehanna, the Park Service has provided a $5,000 grant on the Susquehanna for Lenker to develop educational materials and workshops emphasizing the “leave no trace” concept of river use.

“We want it to get used,” Lenker said, “but we don’t want it to be over-used. The carrying capacity will be determined by how good of stewards the users are.”

Standing on the shore of one of the Susquehanna islands that Lenker is preparing for use, the skyline of Harrisburg looms over the horizon. In the distance, the drone of traffic from nearby Interstate 81 is heard.

But even more clear are the songs of the many species of birds that have taken refuge on the islands. Lenker pointed to a tree limb where an American redstart landed an arm’s length away. One nearby island hosts a black-crowned night heron rookery with more than 200 nests. Another has more than 150 great egret nests. Bald eagles have nested on islands farther upstream. And deer are known to swim out to them. Ducks inhabit the banks.

These are the things that Lenker hopes to open the eyes of the public to as they explore the trail — resources that are literally at their doorstep.

“So many people have misconceptions about the Susquehanna,” Lenker said. “I hear people say, ‘Isn’t the river dangerous?’ Or, ‘Isn’t it dirty?’ Basically, we want to make the river more user-friendly so people will be more likely to set out and explore it and camp out and say, ‘Geez. This is a wonderful resource,’ and just get excited about it.

“And then,” he added, “they are going to be more likely to get involved with restoration projects and a lot of the other things that we do.”

In days gone by, rivers were the trails that led mountain men to the beavers, which they nearly wiped out. They were the paths that brought the settlers inland. They were the avenues used to float clear-cut forests to the sawmills.

But in the future, river trails may be the path that helps people bring those resources back.

Water Trails in the Chesapeake Region

Several water trails are in various stages of completion in the Chesapeake Bay region. They include:

  • Susquehanna River: The first 25 miles of the Susquehanna River Trail, stretching from Halifax to Harrisburg, were opened this spring. The hope is to eventually expand the trail to the full 444-mile length of the river.
  • Potomac River: A citizens group is working to establish a trail both above Washington D.C. — in conjunction with the Chesapeake & Ohio National Historical Park — and below Washington D.C. in the tidewater area.
  • Shenandoah River: Citizens, agencies and local governments, with assistance from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, are developing a recreational management plan which could lead to its designation as a formal water trail, with designated stopping areas, along the river.
  • Rappahannock River: The Virginia General Assembly has directed the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to study the feasibility of a state park on the Rappahannock River from Remington to Fredericksburg, which would essentially be a water trail park, linking sites along the river.
  • Tangier Sound: The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is developing a water trail that links James Island State Park with the Deal Island and Fishing Bay wildlife management areas. The DNR is developing a plan for the project, which would also include links to historic and cultural attractions in nearby towns.

Water trail conference set for October

The third biennial North American Water Trails Conference will take place Oct. 10-13 in Shepherdstown, WV. The conference will explain how to develop and manage a water trail, along with highlighting their many environmental, social and economic benefits. Special programming will address new water trails in the Chesapeake region.

The 1998 conference is presented by North American Water Trails Inc., the Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance Program of the National Park Service, and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

For information or registration materials, write to the North American Water Trails Conference, c/o the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, 225 Pine St., Harrisburg, PA 17101; or phone: 717-236-8825; or fax: 717-236-9019.