The splash of a paddle was the only sound in the hardwood bottoms of the upper Ashley River on a recent afternoon. The red-shouldered hawk slipping past was nearly eye to eye with the paddler.

This is a "blue trail," a waterway version of a hiking trail, one of those quiet opportunities to slip into the natural environs that make up the Lowcountry. The Ashley is the early stages of becoming one of a growing number of designated blue trails in the state - natural, historic and/or cultural river trips with amenities such as signs, launches and maps that identify points of interest.

Much as hiking trails came into their own after the development of the Appalachian Trail in the mid-1900s, blue trails (or blueways) are arriving in the region and throughout the country as more people recognize the recreational, preservation and economic value of what has become a billion dollar industry. Nearly 20 trails have been established to some extent in Charleston, Berkeley or Dorchester counties. Many more easily could be.

And that might be about to happen.

A few dozen people from interested public and private groups met May 20 to look into forming an umbrella regional paddle trail organization, coordinating funding to develop a network of the trails and a clearinghouse for information and maps.

"We've really changed the way we think about rivers. In the last 15, 20 years, people have realized the recreational and economic value of them," said Gerritt Jobsis, Southeast region director for American Rivers, which is helping Summerville area enthusiasts put together the Ashley blue trail designation. "Paddle trails help people discover their local environs. It's the quintessential small business model for our country."

The trails

The Edisto River was rural no man's land in the 1980s when a group of canoeists wanted to open a paddle trail there. Property owners weren't sure they wanted anything to do with something like that.

When newbie paddler Archie Thompson started pulling people together in 1998 to form Berkeley County Blueways, few were really sure what it was all about.

But more canoes, kayaks and paddleboards began showing up on tops of cars. A subtle culture shift took place almost under the radar, in the Lowcountry and across the nation. By 2012, fishing and other water sports accounted for $121 billion and 1.1 million jobs, according to an economic study by the Outdoor Recreation Association.

Thompson took up paddling in the late 1990s as a middle-aged man. After he heard an outfitter talk about wanting to set up a trail system in Berkeley County, Thompson put a paddle to the idea, forging the partnerships that made it work. Berkeley Blueways now features 23 self-guided trails, including a 50-mile camping trail along the Marion-Moultrie lakes. It's a model for the emerging regional effort. Thompson's not done. He wants more launches, signage, on-trail camping.

He talked all along about the potential for a regional trail system and connecting trails when possible.

He sat in the organizing meeting and watched that potential stir.

"Hey," he said afterward, spreading his arms and smiling, "fantastic."

A real chance

The "Appalachian Trail" of the emerging blueway system in the state may well be Southeast Coast Saltwater Paddling Trail, designated to be a 760-mile long route of launches and camps weaving through estuaries from Virginia through Florida. As laid out, it runs roughly along the line of the Intracoastal Waterway. It would be in many ways a paddler's version of the southern stretch of the Appalachian Trail, that iconic 2,180-mile hike along the spines of its namesake mountain range.

A regional blueways system in the Lowcountry would tie into that, and eventually tie into other blue trails along the coast and into the Midlands, creating a statewide trail network. The paddle trails would resemble the web of various blazed trails through the Blue Ridge escarpment winding back and forth from the 80-plus mile Foothills Trail, linking up with mountain trails that connect to the Appalachian.

The effort here is being organized through the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, under a National Park Service technical assistance grant.

"South Carolina is one of the few states down here in the Southeast that really has a chance to connect all these river trails," said Bill Lane, a National Park Service landscape architect who runs the rivers, trails and conservation assistance program. "There is so much activity down here in this part of the state we really feel there is a need to bring these entities together." The bigger the group, the more attractive it is for grants and other funding to make it work, he said. "Regional water trails get kids and adults out on the water and involved in conservation."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.