Officials tout potential of Sky to Sound water trail project

EVERETT — There’s an effort under way to make it easier to use an 84-mile stretch of the scenic Skykomish River — one of the state’s most popular spots for water recreation.

The Sky to Sound water trail map will show outdoor enthusiasts 33 river access points from Possession Sound to the Wild Sky Wilderness, which is part of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest north of U.S. 2.

The intent is to increase outdoor use of the Skykomish and bring money into rural communities along it by providing information that makes for easier navigation.

“This is a huge economic engine for us,” said Annique Bennett, tourism coordinator for Snohomish County’s Office of Economic Development.

The Sky to Sound plan will map recreational access spots along parts of the North and South Fork Skykomish, Snoqualmie and Snohomish rivers. All but three of the entry points are public. The others are already used for recreation but are privately managed.

The hope is that by making information about public spaces easily available, outdoor enthusiasts will stay off private land.

“When this is all done, the public will be much more clear about where to get on and get off” the water, Bennett said.

The county is not seeking changes, such as asking landowners to allow people on their property, Bennett said. The project aims to provide information about existing river access points, available amenities such as campgrounds and restrooms, and the towns along the way such as Index, Gold Bar, Sultan, Monroe and Snohomish.

“A lot of what we’re doing is helping tell the stories of these towns,” said Bennett, a former Monroe Chamber of Commerce director. “A water trail is like a scenic byway. It tells you what you’re looking at and why you care.”

The Skykomish River is among Washington’s most popular waterways for paddle boaters, with at least 10,000 users a year, said Thomas O’Keefe, of American Whitewater, a national nonprofit conservation group. It is internationally popular for non-motorized, paddle-powered boats, such as kayaks, rafts and canoes.

“This is an amazing waterway. It’s known the world over,” Bennett said.

Blair Corson is the owner of the Outdoor Adventure Center, a river tour operator in Index. He said the plan will help people understand the level of difficulty of different parts of the river. That will help eliminate safety issues, such as people running into whitewater when they aren’t expecting it, he said.

Now, information about the water and surrounding areas is hard to come by. That makes planning, especially for multi-day trips, difficult, Corson said.

The water trail will encourage people to use Snohomish County recreation sites along the river.

“It’s what connects a good half of the towns in our county, so being able to work on this project is epic,” Corson said.

Snohomish County Parks Director Tom Teigen said creating a water trail map has been on the wish list for at least two decades.

The county is now able to start working on it thanks to a federal grant awarded in October. It pays for one year of guidance from Sue Abbott, an author and Seattle-based National Park Service employee who has worked on similar outdoors projects across the Northwest.

She will work with landowners along the trail and a 18-member steering committee that includes cities, state agencies, tribes, businesses, nonprofits, outdoor organizations and conservation groups.

Planners also will work alongside Forterra, a nonprofit that is working on a biking and hiking trail that follows the Great Northern Railroad from Everett to Wenatchee.

Abbott is expected to lead public meetings that have yet to be scheduled. The county can apply to continue her services, worth an estimated $25,000 a year, in 2017.

The county’s cost of planning is staff time for parks employees and Bennett, whose position is paid for with lodging tax dollars. Additional money may be needed for maps and a website but those expenses haven’t been calculated, Bennett said.

Once the water trail plan is adopted, she believes it’ll be easier to get grant money to develop it, build new amenities along the river and gain national recognition. The map could also open doors for future environmentally-friendly development of the area’s natural assets.

In the future, the county hopes to replicate the Sky to Sound water trail in other spots such as the Stillaguamish Valley.

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @AmyNileReports

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