Fifteen years ago, University of Vermont computer-science lecturer Robert Erickson hiked the 270-mile Long Trail end to end. He's backpacked through Alaska, paddled much of Lake Champlain, and climbed to the summit of Camel's Hump in the winter. Now that Erickson has two preschool-aged girls, however, he's more likely to be found tramping the trails around his Essex home. And it's more difficult than you might imagine.
While entire books track the Long Trail, printed info on smaller, neighborhood byways tends to be scarce. "I can look at a town map or pick up little trail guides," says Erickson. "But how do I actually get there?"
Starting next Tuesday, April 22, Erickson and thousands of other trail users in northern Vermont will be able to get there from here - or anywhere. They'll also be able to zoom in on satellite photos of scores of Chittenden County trails and identify overlooks, beaches and restrooms. Hikers, walkers, in-line skaters and bikers (and, when the snow flies again, cross-country skiers) will be able to check mileages, plan their parking and determine if a trail is Fido- or fat-tire friendly. And they can do this long before lacing up their shoes and heading out the door - from their own computers.
All these features are part of Local Motion's new online Trail Finder, which the Burlington-based nonprofit plans to unveil on Earth Day. Two years in the making, the free website contains dozens of downloadable and printable maps and directions to nearly 80 different trails, from Milton's Eagle Moun-tain to the Williams Woods in Charlotte.
"We've dreamt about this for a long time now," says Local Motion marketing manager and former Erickson student Todd Taylor. He points out that, while his organization's Trailside Center on the Burlington Bike Path has a wall covered with maps, there's been no single resource for outdoor enthusiasts who want the dirt on Vermont trails.
Over the past two years, Taylor says, Local Motion recruited more than 50 volunteers to contribute their trail and technology smarts to the Trail Finder site. Erickson was one: As a member of the Essex Trails Committee, he helped upload his community's trails into the database. Now, if you search by town and select "Essex," you come up with a Google map on which a bunch of squiggly purple lines designate unpaved, shared-use trails, while red lines represent paved, shared-use ones. (Green lines signify "walking and hiking only.")
Clicking on one of the purple trails produces a Google Earth satellite image of Indian Brook Park, along with a lively description of its loops, mountain-biking terrain and boat-launch area. The nonprofit organization Fellowship of the Wheel supplies regular info on mountain-biking trails and conditions.
To pinpoint the exact locations of many trails, Local Motion relied on Vermonters with savvy in the field of geographic information systems (GIS), such as Pam Brangan, the GIS Services/IT Systems administrator for the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. After helping Local Motion find dependable global-positioning-system (GPS) handheld devices to map out trails, Brangan explains, she used digital aerial photos and other GIS data to correct the GPS data, which can go askew in heavily wooded areas.
Taylor says the combination of this technological sophistication with input from passionate local outdoors-people is what makes Trail Finder unique. And, unlike international sites such as Trails.com, which charges $49.95 a year to access information on 40,000 trails in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, Local Motion's Trail Finder is free.
"We're all about getting people the information they need in order to have a healthy lifestyle, so from the start it's been a free concept," says Taylor. He notes that ads may help support the website, along with membership funds and grant money.
Fulfilling that broader mission may involve connecting with other databases, such as an inventory of Vermont playgrounds, parks and pedestrian paths that local trails volunteer Fred Schmidt helped develop in 2005 at the Center for Rural Studies. Down the road, Trail Finder will also expand beyond Chittenden County, says Taylor. "The scale of it makes more sense for regional information," he explains.
As for the Burlington area, there's just one problem, says Erickson: "We'd like to connect the dots more. Had people thought about trails 100 years ago when divvying up the land, it would be a piece of cake." Instead, Erickson says, trail advocates are trying to figure out a way to connect all those squiggly lines across railroads, highways, shopping developments and private land.
Maybe, he adds, the new Trail Finder will help private landowners contemplate how they can contribute to the movement. After all, "Trails are great for connecting communities together."