Discovering Western Pennsylvania in a kayak or canoe just got a lot easier, thanks to new tools available on the Internet and through mobile applications.
The Allegheny Ridge Corp., which oversees the Kiski-Conemaugh Water Trail, has just completed a three-year project to create an interactive website and printer-friendly maps for trip planning and a mobile application system to "enhance the water trail experience," said Laura Hawkins, greenway coordinator for Allegheny Ridge. Allegheny Ridge also manages the Allegheny Ridge Heritage Area, one of 12 HeritagePA sites.
"The Kiski-Conemaugh Water Trail is actually part of a 320-mile corridor, the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Main Line Greenway System, that follows the historic Main Line Canal," Ms. Hawkins said. Allegheny Ridge works with partners, including local governments and businesses, along the corridor to "develop and deliver heritage tourism infrastructure."
The Kiski-Conemaugh Water Trail consists of 86 river miles, navigable in canoes or kayaks, and includes waterways in Armstrong, Cambria, Indiana, Somerset and Westmoreland counties, Ms. Hawkins said.
"Two of the highlights of this stretch are the Conemaugh and Packsaddle gaps, which many people don't even know about," she said.
In 2010, the Kiski-Conemaugh Water Trail project began with the development of a map and guide.
"That project included a feasibility study on navigable tributaries to the Kiski-Conemaugh main stem and the printer-friendly, Web-based maps," Ms. Hawkins said.
Next came the mobile applications and interactive maps, projects begun in late 2011 and just finished this month.
According to Ms. Hawkins, the guide and printable maps are to help paddlers with trip planning. Once on the rivers, the apps help to optimize that experience.
When the apps were being developed, Ms. Hawkins said, the information was divided into four areas of interest: recreational features; businesses, including places to eat and stay; natural landmarks; and history and heritage.
"If someone is on the river and gets hungry, they can check to see what restaurants are nearby. Or maybe they want to get off the river and learn more about the history of an area, so we list the historical societies and museums," she said.
There are also more than 200 historic photos available of the area, an aspect of the project that Ms. Hawkins said was time-consuming but enjoyable.
"I looked through hundreds of photos to choose the ones we used -- it was one of the most fun aspects of this project but took far longer than I thought it would," she said. "I'm really in debt to many of the historic societies as they helped me with the research."
Users can pull up a photo to see what an area on the river looked like 50 or 60 years ago. They also can find GPS coordinates to take them to a certain place shown in a photograph.
The entire 320-mile greenway was created to connect the communities along the corridor, Ms. Hawkins explained.
"The purpose is to highlight the river and the towns along the river, but we also want to get people off the rivers to see the sites and points of interests in these towns. The mobile apps help do this," she said.
The initial mapping project cost about $40,000, including the feasibility study that was funded through sources including the Department of Conservation and National Resources and the Colcom Foundation. An additional $27,000 from various grants was used to finish the project.
The project has another important component, Ms. Hawkins said.
"The other leg for what we are trying to feature is environmental stewardship. None of this works without rivers that are clean. A big part of our goal is for the recreationist to know how important conservation is and to have conservation opportunities through education," she said.
That is an important aspect of the project, according to Mike Burk, Conemaugh Valley Conservancy president and chairman of the Kiski-Conemaugh River Sojourn Committee.
"People who use these water trails often become stewards of the rivers -- this combination of recreation and conservation fits nicely into that," he said.
Mr. Burk, an avid paddler, helped with the research and reviewing of the information and mobile applications.
"As a paddler, I want to know certain things. Where can I put into the river, where can I take out, where can I get something to eat, where can I get gas -- things like that," he said. He also reviewed the information to make sure it didn't contain so much that it would overwhelm users.
"I think with mobile apps, there is a tendency to put too much information in. I went through to review it through the eyes of a paddler," he said.
The new project will aid the Allegheny Ridge Heritage Area, said Jane Sheffield, executive director.
"These tools will make it easier for visitors to access local small businesses along the entire corridor," she said. "We also hope to encourage residents to get outdoors and experience the unique resources of the Kiski Valley."
Information on Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Main Line Greenway: www.mainlinecanalgreenway.org.
Information on Kiski-Conemaugh Water Trail: www.mainlinecanalgreenway.org/water_trails_kiski.shtml.
Information on Conemaugh Conservancy Stony Kiski River Sojourn: www.conemaughvalleyconservancy.org/recreation/skcs.html.
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: email@example.com