Volunteer Vacation Involves Work, But Not the Office Kind
Dee Sellers, right, and Lucie Johns carry rocks for a rock wall on the South Fork Skokomish Trail. (ANNIE MARTIN | KITSAP SUN).
Pauline Cantor, Cheryl Wagner and Lucie Johns stacked dozens of heavy rocks along a steep hillside, creating a sturdy rock wall. Every few minutes, they rearranged the rocks, searching for the flattest pieces and fitting them together like a puzzle.
It was a hot day on the South Fork Skokomish Trail, between Hoodsport and Shelton along the Skokomish River. The women had been working for six hours. Still, they chatted and even laughed as they worked. This was a summer vacation, after all.
Cantor, Wagner and Johns participated in a Washington Trails Association “Volunteer Vacation” last week. On these weeklong work parties, volunteers perform maintenance on backcountry trails throughout the state. The organization also has a program for high school students.
WTA filled 480 trip slots this year, said Lauren Braden, the association’s communications director.
Demand for the trips has grown, she said. In the past few years, WTA has added four to five trips each year. Each trip has 12 spots.
The volunteer hours are precious to the organization. Without the organized work parties, WTA wouldn’t be able to maintain many of the backcountry trails, Braden said.
Last week’s group replaced a section of the Skokomish trail that was consumed by the river last year.
Interest isn’t necessarily tied to rising gas prices or a search for summer trips closer to home. The volunteers are more likely here because so many participants tell their friends or hiking group about the trips, Braden said. After all, it’s a way for hikers to give back to the trails, she said.
The trips are also a low-cost and rewarding alternative to a traditional vacation. Volunteers have time at the end of the workday to swim, hike or relax. They also have one free day during the week.
Dee Sellers decided to spend one week of her month-long stay in Washington working on a trail. Sellers, from Russellville, Ark., said she loves hiking and wanted to see a forest on the Olympic Peninsula. It allowed her to be active during her break from work, she said.
“It’s exercise, it’s good for you, I’m doing something for the country,” Sellers said.
She read from her T-shirt: Live, Love, Conserve.
“It just makes you feel good,” she said.
Aside from the work, there’s the social aspect of spending a week with new people. Many times, the volunteers become good friends and sign up for another trip together the next year, crew leader Janice O’Connor said. That’s what Cantor and her husband, Cliff, did. After going on a trip with O’Connor last year, the couple picked a trip this year they knew O’Connor would lead.
“It’s not just about the work and the satisfaction in fixing trails and making new trails,” said Cantor, a Sammamish resident. “It’s also lots of fun to be with these people because it’s just a bunch of really cool people.”
Even if the other participants are familiar, there’s room for surprise: Earlier in the week, the crew discovered a 10-foot cache filled with old canned food and fishing supplies. A newspaper in the space was dated 1997. In fact, several volunteers said exploring new places is part of the experience. Johns, an assistant crew leader, said the trips are opportunities to see parts of the state she hasn’t before.
After more than a decade of volunteering, Johns said she helps newcomers discover the joys of trail work.
“I really like working with first-timers because it’s so much fun to have somebody out for the first time,” Johns said. “At the end of day, they’ll say ‘Wow, look how much work we’ve got done. Look how much I’ve learned. I’ll never look at a trail the same way again.'"