Baltimore will soon have an official network of water trails to take in the city’s sights by canoe, kayak or stand-up paddleboard, stretching from the World War II submarine in the Inner Harbor to the wildlife along the Patapsco River’s Middle Branch.

Dubbed the Baltimore Blueway, the plan for an eight-trail network is a collaboration between the Waterfront Partnership, the city government and local nonprofits.

Ray Scurr, the president of the Canton Kayak Club and a member of the project’s planning committee, said the Blueway has the potential to be another form of ride share for those who want to enjoy the water and also avoid driving into the city and parking.

“People see the water and want to be next to it, but they don’t have a way to access the water,” Scurr said.

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His club’s membership has rocketed since the pandemic and has over 700 members this season. It offers unlimited seasonal kayaking from May to October, with equipment and opportunities for group outings.

He said he’s full of excitement for the Blueway.

“When I paddle, I don’t want to always go aimlessly, I’d like to go to Fort McHenry and paddle back, or go to the aquarium and stop for a picnic and paddle back,” he said. “It’s about destinations and we’ve never had routes throughout Baltimore like this before.”

Plans for the Blueway were unveiled at a news conference at Rash Field on Thursday morning, where Mayor Brandon Scott made a splashy entrance in a kayak.

“The views of the harbor and Baltimore are best from the water,” he said. “I saw fish and jellies, things that I never usually see.”

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Mayor Brandon Scott arrived to the press release for the Baltimore Blueway plan on a kayak. Paddling, he said, is one of his favorite ways to relax. (Sunny Nagpaul/Sunny Nagpaul)

Adam Lindquist, the vice president of environmental initiatives at the Waterfront Partnership, said the goal of the Blueway is to encourage locals and tourists to explore the city by watercraft, and to make doing so more accessible and convenient. Plans for the Blueway map out access points for parking and rest stops, along with must-see attractions.

“There’s all sorts of people paddling in the Baltimore Harbor,” he said. “It’s all about making a branded, well-marketed water trail network in Baltimore so that anybody who’s interested in paddling in our city can look it up and say, here’s where I can get in, here’s where I can get out. Here are the sites that I can see.”

According to the plan released by the Waterfront Partnership, the Blueway will etch its path in Baltimore based on safety guidelines recommended by the Coast Guard and through the experience of local paddlers. It offers eight routes along the perimeter of four waterways: the Inner Harbor, also called the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River; the Middle Branch, north of Cherry Hill and east of Westport; the Main Branch, south of Fort McHenry; and the nontidal area of the Patapsco, a narrower part of the river that extends southwest past Brooklyn.

Lindquist said the Blueway is modeled after other water paths in cities such as Buffalo, New York, Miami and Chicago, and that launching a waterfront recreation movement is the right step after more than a decade of efforts to reduce pollution and contamination in the harbor. Since 2018, the plan states, there has been a 97% reduction in overflows from Baltimore’s sanitary sewer system in the harbor.

“We had a number of problems 12 years ago, including way too much trash in our water and way too much bacteria from our city sewer system,” he said. “We’ve got four trash wheels in the Baltimore Harbor now picking up 500,000 pounds of trash and debris every year. The Department of Public Works has now spent over a billion dollars repairing sewer pipes.”

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For locals and tourist alike, each area of the city has different beauties to offer. In the Inner Harbor, water travelers can view the city skyline, floating wetlands near the National Aquarium, and historic ships, such as a World War II submarine. “There’s so much to see in such a very short distance,” Lindquist said. In Middle Branch, he said, wildlife such as bald eagles, osprey, egrets and turtles can be found close to the shore or in Masonville Cove. At Fort McHenry, paddlers can explore the area where the country’s national anthem was written.

In the current plan, there are eight official access sites where paddlers can get in and out of the harbor and also include amenities, such as parking. It also identifies rest stops where paddlers can take breaks and enjoy attractions such as wildlife sightseeing, museums or restaurants.

One of those rest stops is planned to be near the Baltimore Museum of Industry, which honors the inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Claire Mullins, the museum’s director of marketing, said it’s still early days and details aren’t nailed down yet, but that the staff “wholeheartedly support increased public access to the waterfront. And if having visitors arrive by kayak is a possibility,” she said, “count us in!”

More sites means more places to stop and rest, which according to Lindquist, increases the safety of water travel. The partnership has proposed 12 more sites and rest stops that they will work with property developers on installing. “There are clearly holes in the Blueway that we need to fill with additional public access,” Lindquist said, and added that the partnership has done extensive studies to find the best location for new public access points along the route.

So far, developers in Westport, Baltimore Peninsula, Harbor Point and Harborplace have expressed excitement, and a commitment to making an access point or rest stop along the Blueway.

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“As we work to reimagine Harborplace, we will continue to coordinate with the Waterfront Partnership and all City stakeholders to create the best waterfront for all of Baltimore,” said Kristen Durkin, the senior marketing director of MCB Real Estate, the group working on Harborplace.

A spokesperson for the Baltimore Peninsula development said the group has 2.5 miles of waterfront access in the Middle Branch, and that Blueway “increases awareness and appreciation for natural resources.” The group has already made one entry point at Masonville Cove and plans to build more as the neighborhood grows.

The Waterfront Partnership expects more sites to be added to the route by next spring, including an Inner Harbor kayak launch that the partnership has just received funding for from the Baltimore Tourism Improvement District.

Another goal of the Blueway is to encourage safe paddling practices, which means sticking to the perimeter of the harbor, only crossing it in the designated crossing area as laid out in the map, and remembering that the harbor is a working waterway that boats and shipping vessels will continue to use without adjustments to their schedules.

The partnership recommends that paddlers check the marine weather forecast before embarking and to avoid paddling if the wind is over 15 mph or if there is a small craft advisory. Throughout the year, the group will host Kayaking 101 and other safety training courses. Currently, Inner Harbor Kayak Tours also offers paddling lessons.

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One of the biggest challenges the group has faced, Lindquist said, is addressing the public perception that the Inner Harbor is dangerously polluted. To spread transparency on the water’s condition, his group conducts daily water sample tests Monday through Friday and posts the results within 24 hours here.

The next immediate steps for the Baltimore Blueway include launching an official website on Thursday, where water sampling results will also be posted, and spreading social media campaigns on safety.

This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Claire Mullins’ surname.

Sunny Nagpaul has been a freelance reporter since 2017, and covers arts and culture & homelessness and housing. She enjoys creating video newscasts, and has in the past worked in child care, as a line cook, and is interested in learning investigative tips for deeper stories.

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