WESTPORT - An idea born two years ago aimed at creating a new network of hiking and cross-country ski trails in central Champlain Valley is taking shape with the opening of three new public footpaths.
The new paths are just the beginning of what organizers hope will be a contiguous series of trails that will link Lake Champlain with surrounding communities, the High Peaks and points beyond.
The concept was the brainchild of a group of avid nature enthusiasts who created the nonprofit corporation Champlain Area Trails, or CATS.
"Our dream is to eventually create a network of trails like they have in Europe, where visitors take the train to a trailhead, hike from town to town for a week or two, and then return to their homes by train," said CATS board member David Reuther.
To begin, the group created three new trails connecting the Essex County towns of Westport and Essex. They hope to extend the system this summer north to the hamlet of Essex, creating a 25-mile loop between the towns.
But the goal doesn't end there.
"We also plan to create trails north from Essex to Willsboro and Keeseville and south to Port Henry and Crown Point, as well as west to Elizabethtown and the Jay and Giant wilderness areas," Reuther said. "This would connect us to the 4,200-mile North Country National Scenic Trail that joins New York to North Dakota, and also to New York's Long Path between New York City and the Canadian border."
Chris Maron, program director for the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said the trails will not only open some pristine Adirondack land to the public, but will help stimulate local economies.
"Most people now drive to the High Peaks in order to hike in the Adirondacks," Maron said. "Our goal is to help residents appreciate the tremendous natural beauty of the Champlain Valley, as well as the many historic and cultural features. These trails will also benefit the region as visitors hike and ski between the lake towns, in the same way the Jackrabbit Trail brings skiers to Lake Placid and Keene."
The first trio of trails includes the 3-mile Boquet Mountain Trail following old logging roads across the prominent saddle-backed mountain; the 1-mile Beaver Flow Trail and the shorter Bobcat Trail. All are marked with green CATS markers that feature a bobcat's paw print.
Access to the Boquet Mountain trail can be gained by a northern trailhead on Jersey Street about 1.5 miles west of the Boquet River bridge and on the southern end on Cook Road, just west of the junction with Leaning Road. The Beaver Flow Trail leaves Cook Road and continues south to Walker Road through a diverse forest and beside a series of beaver ponds and the Bobcat Trail continues through fields and forests from Walker Road to Ferris Road, a few miles north of the Wadhams hamlet.
All three trails are mostly on land owned by the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit conservation organization.
"Protecting wildlife habitat and connecting people with nature is part of the Eddy Foundation's mission," said Jamie Phillips, president of the foundation and a member of the CATS board of directors. "We are pleased to make our land available for this segment of the trail network. The trails provide residents with a nearby place to hike and offer visitors non-motorized outdoor recreation opportunities."
Dozens of volunteers are helping clear the trails.
"In fact, so many people showed up for our first trail-clearing work party that we cleared the Boquet Mountain Trail in less than a day instead of the two or three days we'd expected it would take," said Sheri Amsel, chair of the CATS board and a noted naturalist and author/illustrator.
Amsel recently created a map showing the new trails as well as local dirt and paved roads that are good for walking. They can be viewed or downloaded at www.champlainareatrails.com.
The notion of CATS began two years ago when longtime Essex residents Steven Kellogg and Bruce Klink were discussing Bill McKibben's book "Wandering Home," about his long walking trip in the Champlain Valley and Adirondacks.
McKibben crossed Lake Champlain at Split Rock and walked west into the High Peaks, then south to his home in Johnsburg. Kellogg, Klink and others began with the idea for a trail near the lake.
"We looked at maps and realized that a trail network between Essex and Westport could easily be established using lands already open to the public," said CATS board member John Davis, conservation director at the Adirondack Council. "These include the state's Split Rock Wild Forest, Adirondack Land Trust's Coon Mountain Preserve, Eddy Foundation property, and willing landowners."
Those interested in hearing more about the trail network can attend a talk and slideshow by Amsel, Davis and Maron, Wednesday, April 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Wadhams Free Library at the corner of State Route 22 and the Elizabethtown-Wadhams Road.
To be added to the CATS e-mail list for announcements of new trails, hikes, and trail-clearing days, e-mail them at email@example.com, mail them at P.O. Box 102, Essex, NY, 12936 or call 963-8222.