BETHLEHEM — One of the things that drew Angela Figallo McShane to the area north of Franconia Notch about a decade ago was the vast opportunity to get outdoors and explore the mountains, streams and forests of the region. When she stepped into the role of physical education teacher at the Profile School, a regional middle and high school, she couldn’t wait to share her love of the outdoors and of exploring it with her students.

Only that outdoor exploration wasn’t as easy as she expected it to be.

“There were too many barriers in the way of getting my students outdoors and involved in activities I love to do in my own time up here,” she said. “To get to any trails or streams, we had to get into a bus and drive. I wasn’t comfortable taking beginner (bikers) along the road, which has narrow shoulders and fast-moving cars. I didn’t feel like it was as safe as it should be for middle school students and students with disabilities.”

After a few years of being frustrated by the situation, Figallo McShane is now spearheading an effort to build a trail connecting Profile School with the towns whose children attend the school from seventh through 12th grades. The effort has garnered support from town officials and residents, the school, the Adaptive Sports Partners of the North Country, and retired skiing great Bode Miller’s Turtle Ridge Foundation. Figallo McShane has also secured $142,360 in grant funding.

Isolated from home

Profile School sits on Route 18, about 4 miles — by road — from the downtown area of Bethlehem and 3 miles from the center of Franconia. Children from both towns, along with Sugar Hill and Easton, attend Profile.

“Students seem a little isolated from home, as our school is not physically connected to town,” said Figallo McShane. “We live in a beautiful area, but it is not as pedestrian- and cycling-friendly as we’d like it to be. Students have no safe way to walk or bike to school, and no trail access from school.”

While the primary goal of the trail-building effort is to provide children a safe route to school, Figallo McShane and others see a trail between the school and its communities as an opportunity not just for students, but for adaptive trail users, for families looking for gentler terrain than is currently available in the area, for skiing and biking and trail running.

“I’m very excited. I graduated from Profile and grew up biking here,” said Kyla Miller, who has two children at Profile (another graduated last year) and is the executive director for her family’s Turtle Ridge Foundation. “I used to bike back and forth from Tamarack (in Easton) to Franconia, and that became a pretty easy bike. But it’s not safe. This is just a long time coming, and I’m really excited that it’s going to link these two towns together, and it’s going to be used by all abilities.”

The trail, whose planned route has been flagged by professional trail builder John Morton, will be about 5 miles long — making it a more direct route from both towns to the school — and 10 to 12 feet wide.

The trail also will enable students at Profile to get outside more easily, and for a variety of purposes.

“Once this trail is built, accessing the outdoors from campus will be simple,” said Figallo McShane, who has already incorporated snowshoeing and cross-country skiing into her classes.

“Our teachers have plans to create poetry walks along the trail, build benches and peaceful spaces. It will give our biology students access to Indian Brook for ecology studies. We will have a fleet of bikes to take students mountain biking from school. … We will be able to ‘sew’ activity in the outdoors into the fabric of our lives.”

Trail momentum

Figallo McShane‘s effort comes at a time when there is a growing momentum from various entities to create non-motorized, multi-use trails in the area.

The Bethlehem Trails Association is working to develop and maintain trails around town. And the PRKR Mountain trails in nearby Littleton, along with trails maintained in Franconia by the local chapter of New England Mountain Bike Association are both part of the recently formed Borderlands mountain biking collaborative, which aims to encourage trail use and bike-based tourism in seven areas from Quebec to Maine and through northern New Hampshire and Vermont.

Figallo McShane is a founding member of the Friends of Profile Trails group, whose mission is to foster healthy lifestyles by developing and maintaining networks of non-motorized trails in the region north of Franconia Notch. The group has been working to develop a comprehensive master plan for improving existing trails in the area, creating new trails (often with an eye toward providing safer access to town centers), and establishing connecting corridors between trails.

She credits a dedicated group of volunteers with helping move the effort forward and has been buoyed by the outpouring of support for the trail.

“This project is huge and daunting and has kept me up at night,” she said. “But there are so many people who are rooting for us. It’s motivating.”

Among those supporters is Profile School guidance counselor Jill Brewer, who also chairs the select board in Franconia and is a member of the Friends of Profile Trails group.

“While we have many wonderful outdoor recreation opportunities in this area, we actually do not have very many low-grade walking, biking, cross-country ski trails,” Brewer said. “The Profile Trail will be a beautiful, easily accessible trail for everyone from young children to older adults. Whether you are an avid mountain biker, a casual stroller, a runner, or a biking novice, the trail will have a lot to offer.”

Last year, Figallo McShane applied for and received funding — $142,360 — from a federal grant. She has also set up an online fundraising page (accessed via www.turtleridgefoundation.org), and the trail project has received several smaller donations from busineses, individuals and nonprofit groups.

The Miller family’s Turtle Ridge Foundation, whose mission is to support youth and adaptive sport opportunities, dedicated all proceeds from its annual Bode Fest at Cannon Mountain last weekend to the project.

Kyla Miller, said the event raised upward of $20,000. Of that, $12,500 has been earmarked for purchasing fat bikes for Profile students to use.

Should Figallo McShane be successful in securing a grant from bike company Specialized for that purpose, however, the Turtle Ridge funds will be put to use building the trail.

Figallo McShane estimates the project will require an additional $118,000 — beyond the federal grant — to complete much of the work this summer. The money will go toward trail building, signage, bridge construction and easements.

There are already two fundraisers planned for Kentucky Derby day, May 4, in Franconia: a Dow Derby fun run hosted by Lafayette Recreation and a Rowing Marathon at Iron Furnace Brewing.

Figallo McShane hopes to have much of the trail completed by the end of the year.

She envisions the trail being used by bikers and skiers, families and students, trail runners and dog walkers. She hopes it will serve as a formula for building other trails in the area, that this trail will be “an example of how connecting trails can pull our community together and create an even stronger, more vibrant and more engaged community.”