It began with a hard-boiled egg. Actually, 72 hard-boiled eggs. Each one carefully tucked into a zip-lock bag and handed out at a meeting of paddlers and other outdoor enthusiasts in 2006. The eggs were accompanied by Fred Couch’s business card and a small note that stated simply, “Longest In-One-State River Trail.”
Couch, an avid canoer and the president of his family’s jewelry store business in Anniston, had become interested in creating an official river trail in Alabama. And since the state has more miles of navigable waterways than you can shake a paddle at, meandering from the northern mountains all the way to the southern coast, Couch calculated that such a trail could be the nation’s longest within a single state.
But why a hardboiled egg?
“It was just a gimmick to get everybody to read that slip of paper inside the bag,” Couch recalled recently. “I was just trying to get their attention.”
Something sure did, because the idea rapidly gained momentum. Couch founded the Alabama Scenic River Trails (ASRT) organization in 2007 and began meeting with a wide variety of individuals and organizations, including the National Park Service. He pitched the idea to then-Gov. Bob Riley and other political leaders and received official recognitions of support from the State Senate, 19 Alabama county commissions and four city councils.
“It was amazing how many people liked the idea and volunteered to assist,” Couch says. “The state was wonderful in their support. They really helped me get it going.”
In 2008, a 650-mile trail was designated, encompassing seven rivers and two creeks. It began along the Coosa River at the Alabama-Georgia state line and ended at Fort Morgan State Historic Site on Mobile Bay. The American Canoe Association acknowledged that it was indeed the longest river trail within a single state, and the U.S. Department of the Interior awarded it National Recreation Trail status.
The Alabama Tourism Department produced 25,000 brochures touting the trail and distributed them at state welcome centers. Couch himself was among the people who traveled along the various waterways, conducting research to be used in a series of guidebooks. Over the years, Couch says the ASRT has incorporated more than 50 other waterways into the system, increasing the trail’s total length to approximately 5,300 miles.
In addition to generating preservation efforts for this natural resource, the creation of an official river trail was an attempt to trigger new tourism opportunities for the state. According to data from the Outdoor Industry Association, Alabama lags behind Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and both Carolinas when it comes to spending on outdoor recreation.
“We should be able to attract people to Alabama for the sheer volume and variety of paddling, along with the remote beauty,” ASRT Managing Consultant Jim Felder says. “You can literally paddle for days in Alabama and not see a house. Even our rivers that are dammed have a natural look to them. There’s just a lot to choose from in Alabama.”
Of course, unlike the creation of a road or mountain-bike path, the rivers were already there. So in that sense, developing a trail primarily means building access points, posting informational signs and providing designated spaces for camping along the river, all of which requires assistance from local communities.
“It’s not just about the river itself. It’s about the access locations and recreational infrastructure,” says Beth Stewart, executive director of the Cahaba River Society. “What services are available in the surrounding communities? Where can I get gas and something to eat? Where can I spend the night? Are there festivals or other attractions nearby?
“The idea is to really maximize the economic benefit of the recreation and tourism attraction of the river itself in connection with the surrounding communities, and knit them more closely together. We hope what that will do eventually is lead to more development of businesses and support services related to the recreation that’s taking place on the river.”
That is the regular pitch Couch makes to officials and landowners when he encourages them to allow for the creation of access points, signage and camping areas. Basically, he says, there is untapped money flowing past them every day.
“I’ll go to a county commission meeting and tell them about what’s being done in other states, and the millions of dollars a year that they are receiving from river trails,” Couch says. “More people are becoming interested. When I started this organization, there were eight places in the entire state where you could rent canoes or kayaks. Now there are 50. Economically, that’s about 300 new jobs.”
One of those new companies is UnPhiltered Kayaking, a Guntersville outfitter started by Phil Walton six years ago. UnPhiltered Kayaking offers rentals and organizes trips, and Walton says business is booming.
“We were the first business of our type in Guntersville, and when we opened the general amount of recreational kayaking around here was very low,” Walton says. “Now we have trips booked three to four months in advance. Recreational kayaking is just exploding. We have a remarkable resource in Alabama with our rivers and lakes, and we want people to explore them.”
Couch uses the 8-mile stretch of Terrapin Creek near Piedmont as an example of what is possible. With the help of a $28,000 State of Alabama Recreation Trail grant, the ASRT improved entrance points to the river and then promoted the section with a series of “You Are Here” signs that provide important local information (including emergency contact numbers) along with a map of the area. He says there are now three outfitters along Terrapin Creek, providing services to approximately 20,000 people each year.
“That’s a lot of use on that one creek,” Couch says. “We are trying to do that throughout the state. We’re not cutting down trees or making a walking trail, which is very expensive per mile. We’re just helping create access and putting signs up announcing that this is a river trail you can travel on, and here is what you need to know. And it’s not just for tourists. It’s for the local community and anybody who wants to use that waterway.”
Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.