Officials from around Southeast Alaska are planning a trail system that would link the region with land, sea and underwater routes.
The system, called SEAtrails, is in its infancy, lacking maps, mileages and markers. But backers, including Odin Brudie of the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said it could compare with great hiking trails such as the Pacific Crest, which reaches from Canada to Mexico, and the Appalachian, which winds from Maine to Florida.
SEAtrails would have more because it would include biking trails, walking trails at historic and cultural sites, wheelchair-accessible paths, and kayaking routes, all linked by the Alaska Marine Highway System.
"We are very young, have had only one meeting and have a concept; we don't have much on paper yet," said Davey Lubin of Sitka, a member of the Trails and Recreational Access for Alaska board founded by Gov. Tony Knowles in 1995.
Although no map of SEAtrails has been drawn, "Most of the portions of the trail system as we see it already exist," Lubin said. Some are proposed, such as an underwater trail for divers in Sitka.
SEAtrails held its first meeting in Sitka on July 30. About 20 people attended, including parks and tribal officials from Craig, Sitka, Skagway, Angoon, Juneau, Pelican, Petersburg and Ketchikan. Most comments were positive, Lubin said.
"During our brainstorming sessions we have considered that people would do the trail in sections, and we would reward them with T-shirts or patches. We want people to freely use the trail without the constraint of a pre-made itinerary. They can just jump on the ferry and go," Lubin said. "We are targeting the independent traveler, both visitors to the state and local Alaskans, giving them a reason for going to all these different places."
More often than not, when ferries leave the dock, they have walk-on passenger space available.
"We would provide AMHS with more passengers," Lubin said.
Brudie, who is facilitating the group, noted the ferry system is enthusiastic about the SEAtrails partnership, and would be eligible for federal funding for such additions as kayak racks.
The next SEAtrails organizational meeting is scheduled for October, by which time it would like to have a governing body and an operating budget, Lubin said.
Pelican is ready to jump on the SEAtrails bandwagon, said Mayor Kathie Wasserman, who attended the July 30 meeting.
"The City of Pelican already attracts kayakers and independent travelers. We don't have a dock that can handle cruise ships, and that's not our bag. But a trail system would be right up our alley," Wasserman said. "There's a lot of country on Chichagof Island that still has bears and great rivers and high lakes. The opportunity to walk through or kayak around a 72-mile-long island with unspoiled territory like that is attractive to people."
The ferry system now makes one Sunday day trip a month to Pelican, a town of about 150. If SEAtrails becomes a reality, it might increase demand for ferry service, Wasserman said.
Clay Culbert of Clay's Dive Shop in Sitka also is enthusiastic about SEAtrails. He has proposed the trail system embrace an underwater trail at Halibut Point Recreation Area, between the Sitka ferry terminal and town.
"A number of people dive there already," Culbert said. "It has steep, scenic drop-offs, pods of sea lions, octopus, sea stars, colorful invertebrates like nudibranchs, crabs and kelp beds."
Culbert is working with landscape architect Barth Hamburg to define the underwater trail. They see it as no more than 60 feet deep and similar to the underwater park at St. John in the Virgin Islands, complete with interpretive stations and placards.
If SEAtrails continues to gain ground, its first section may be unveiled next spring, along with a Web site, Lubin said.