Bay Trail is hinge point for bike path network

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A conceptual map of the Pend d'Oreille Bay Trail shows how a linked network of trailheads, parks and a proposed underpass would link public access to the waterfront into a wider system of biking and walking trails that have the potential to connect municipalities from Sagle all the way to Priest River. (Courtesy image)

A conceptual map of the Pend d'Oreille Bay Trail shows how a linked network of trailheads, parks and a proposed underpass would link public access to the waterfront into a wider system of biking and walking trails that have the potential to connect municipalities from Sagle all the way to Priest River. (Courtesy image)

Editors note: This is the first in a series of articles about how local communities have embraced the concept of a connected system of bike paths for both alternative transportation and recreation.

SANDPOINT — One link at a time, a sizable network of bike and walking paths is beginning to connect local communities, with Sandpoint sitting squarely in the hub.

The spokes of this wheel currently run south to Sagle and west to Dover. With the recent news that the initial funding cycle has been completed for the Pend d'Oreille Bay Trail, that 1.5-mile, waterfront section of pathway is expected to expand the trail network north to Ponderay and, eventually, east as far as Kootenai.

When all of these pieces finally intersect, more than 25 miles of trails will allow bikers and walkers alike to easily travel between the municipalities for work, shopping or just for the fun of it.

According to Susan Drumheller, North Idaho associate for the Idaho Conservation League, the Pend d'Oreille Bay Trail could act as the hinge point for connectivity within this trail matrix.

“Ultimately, that’s what we want to see — a connection,” she said.    

Sandpoint already receives waves of media attention for its natural amenities and small town charm, but proponents of the bike path concept believe the area could receive a new and very positive kind of attention once it fully embraces alternative forms of transportation. For Drumheller, the combination of natural beauty and accessibility come together off the highway and along the bike trail.

“This connectivity piece makes our community so much more family friendly,” she said. “Kids can't drive, but they can ride a bike. There's so much nature all around us, but in a car-centric society, it can be dangerous for kids to get out and experience it.”

On the Pend d'Oreille Bay Trail, riders and walkers also have the added benefit of traversing a stretch of waterfront that takes in some of the richest chapters of the area's history.

“There's a lot of stories along this trail — the Ice Age Flood, the Kalispell Tribe, the railroad and the birth of Sandpoint, and the Humbird Mill,” Drumheller listed.

The Idaho Conservation League first started working on the bay trail concept about seven years ago, taking its lead from the popularity of a shoreline path that trespassers had been enjoying for generations. Known for years as the “bum jungle” trail - a nod to the freight-hopping hobos who would spend a night or two in one of the informal campsites that dot the trail just below the nearby railroad tracks - the concept gained steam after an advisory group established by former Sandpoint Mayor Ray Miller applied for and received a technical assistance grant from the National Parks Service to develop a plan for acquiring the land and opening it up to community access.

“It took two years to complete the plan, but, in the end, it was worth every moment, because it brought money to the project later that we probably wouldn't have had,” Drumheller said.

With the concept plan in hand, a group made up of seven government agencies and local municipalities set about drumming up funding to conduct environmental assessment and buy the land. When the Hall family announced it was willing to sell its large, lakeshore section, the project took a leap forward.

With four lakeshore parcels in play along the proposed 1.5-mile trail, the agreement called for Sandpoint to purchase two sections, with Ponderay and the Friends of the Pend d'Oreille Bay Trail each purchasing one of the remaining properties.

The Friends of the Pend d'Oreille Bay Trail announced in late-September that a 24-month schedule of grant applications, fundraising events and private donation requests had paid off — the group had reached its goal of raising $400,000 to buy the final piece of land.

“We had three years to do it,” said Drumheller, “and we did it in two years.”

Though surely the most expensive chapter of the bay trail story, finalizing the land acquisition leaves plenty of heavy lifting ahead, she added. Developing the trail still calls for working with the railroad to gain an easement and build some form of underpass that will give access to and from the City of Ponderay at the easternmost part of the pathway.

Beyond that, there remains one piece of private property that now blocks the trail with a gate and the matter of dealing with possible environmental concerns associated with the concentration of lead in the ground at Black Rock - a large slag pile left over from smelting operations that once took place on the lakeshore.

But with so much of the advance work in place, the various parties involved in the trail plan now feel confident that the final stages will come together, as well.

In time, the Pend d'Oreille Bay Trail will include an interpretive trail with signage that pays tribute to the role of Sandpoint icons Ross & Hazel Hall and their family, calls attention to Native American history on the site, shows off the spot where the historic Humbird Mill once operated and even points to some of the more popular campsites from the “bum jungle” era.

For now, easy access to the trail is available at the recently improved parking lot immediately east of the Sandpoint Water Treatment Plant. Amenities such as benches, picnic tables and a “Mutt-Mitt” dispenser are in place thanks in large part to $10,000 donation from local Rotary Club members. Although there has been no scientific measurement of trail usage at this point, a two-hour count at the trailhead this past summer tallied about 60 people heading down the path during that short time frame.

The concept plan — which has been formally adopted by Sandpoint, Ponderay, Kootenai and Bonner County — includes a broad vision for an uninterrupted system of bike paths that makes it simple to travel between those municipalities.    

“I think there's a real opportunity here to build a wonderful trail system,” Drumheller said. “It's a desirable thing that makes the community more livable and enhances property values.”

The Friends of the Pend d'Oreille Bay Trail will host a gathering this Thursday, Nov. 21, from 5-7:30 p.m. at the Pend d'Oreille Winery to celebrate reaching their fundraising goal, as well as to introduce the public to the concept plan for future trail improvements. Along with live music and appetizers, the event will feature auction items such as a season pass for the 2014 Festival at Sandpoint season and a Hawaiian condo stay. The event is free and open to the public.

(In next Sunday's Daily Bee: How the City of Ponderay plans to leverage untapped natural assets to further expand the bike trail concept and how Priest River is exploring ways to develop its own connectivity.)

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