Blazing a new coastal trail

On a sugary beach halfway up the forearm of Cape Cod, a rather Thoreauvian character is slowly plodding his way in a grandiose cause. With his wiry beard and grizzled looks, Al Le-Page will tell you he looks like the great naturalist author. But contemplating life and sitting next to Walden Pond isn't Mr. LePage's style. He's a hiker and the executive director of the nonprofit North Coast Trails Organization.

The 1,000 member group based in Portland, Ore., is working on whipping up local - and national - support for an East Coast trail that would follow coast and shore-line from Maine to Florida.

And that's not all.

"Our vision is to loop a trail around the US, 10,000 miles [long]," says LePage. "This National Coastal Trail would give the majority of Americans the opportunity to access our beautiful coastlines anywhere along their length within a day's drive from where they live."

In 1988, LePage marched the 400 miles of the Oregon coast in 30 days. And 1992, he trekked the 200 miles of the rain-soaked Washington coastline, at one point calling his wife and telling her he might call it quits.

Nature tested his mettle: At one point he lost the sole of his shoe in a soupy swamp and had to limp the last three miles with a garbage bag and rope holding it in place.

But he persevered and finished. In fact, in 1996 he powered down the 1,200 mile California coast. Living primarily on peanut-butter sandwiches, raisins, and the occasional can of cold baked beans, LePage finished in 3-1/2 months, the only person, he says, to have hiked the entire West Coast.

And you won't find any high-tech garb or electronic equipment on this hiker. The jolly walker doesn't use hiking boots or tents; both weigh him down. After all, he points out, the native Americans didn't wear hiking boots; they wore moccasins. At night, he wraps up in a tarp and a thin sleeping sack. His New Balance shoes help him average 2-1/2 miles an hour, even on the soft sand of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

"For me, [the Oregon coast] was an odyssey. It transformed me physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually," LePage says. "I had this connection to the coast that I'd never had before."

And this connection is what keeps LePage going.

He says the West Coast Trail is almost complete. He estimates there are only 50 miles missing in Oregon, 10 in Washington, and 500 in California. But the missing stretches are not going to be easy to link.

"We see the Oregon coast especially threatened by development. The only way for preservation to happen is to purchase property," he says.

LePage says the Oregon and Washington State park systems are underfunded. The bulk of their funding, he says, goes to maintaining existing parks and facilities. Funding for trails is low on the priority list.

As for the East Coast, the trail already exists. Since much of the shoreline is private property, LePage is proposing a "water trail," one that would be accessible by kayak. The sticking point comes in trying to set up access points every 8 to 12 miles.

But there have been breakthroughs on the West Coast. For example, the Washington State Parks Commission formally recognized the the Washington Coast Trail last July and agreed to work with the NCTA on promoting it. And along the central Oregon coast, a new section of trail was built last year.

Steven Elkinton, the program leader for the National Trails Program in the national parks system is skeptical of LePage's plan. He says much of the Gulf Coast has estuaries that could prove difficult for even a water trail and questions support for a trail on the East coast.

While LePage knows it will take an act of Congress - a 10 to 15 year haul - to get his trail designated as a scenic one, he's not worried. He sees the project as "as a work in progress," and has no idea when it will be completed. Whether it's a family day hike or a three-week journey, LePage says everyone can benefit. "It's important for people to come out and 're-create' themselves, get away from the stress and tension of everyday life," says LePage.

"The value of a long distance trail is not that everyone will use it ... but people can create their own adventure.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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