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Behind the Scenes Before the Fun

Posted by Rachel Wendling at Jan 03, 2018 02:04 PM |
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Backcountry trip registration opens soon, but it's a full-time job at WTA.

Every year, on a Saturday in early February, registration opens for WTA’s volunteer vacations and backcountry trips. In the WTA office, the trails team is waiting, with doughnuts and coffee, for the trips to open for registration and for the wildness to begin. At home, eager volunteers wait on their computers, ready to pounce the moment registration opens. Once it does, trips start filling up fast—some in less than a minute. The trails team watches, yelling out as trips fill up and predicting which trips will close next.

Devil's Dome 7.8.17 by Jonathan Chadburn (2).jpgVolunteers on a backcountry trip to Devil's Dome. Photo by Jonathan Chadburn.

As registration continues, the team answers questions over the phone and by email. They cope with any challenges that crop up. Coffee grows cold and doughnuts are neglected as they work to keep things going smoothly. Within an hour, the pace slows. The trails team pushes back from their desks. They refresh their coffee and check the trips again, curious to see if any additional trips have filled up while they finished off a doughnut.

While a lot of excitement and energy are crammed into that Saturday morning, for the WTA trails team, the work of volunteer vacations is a year-round project. From planning a trip to cleaning and repairing gear at the end of the season, it takes a lot of work to pull off the volunteer vacations—and it’s worth every second.

Tim Van Beek manages WTA’s volunteer vacations program. It’s a job that gives him a lot of joy.

“It’s an honor to get people out in the backcountry,” he said. “I know what hiking has done for me. It changed my life. I am so happy I get to help do that for others.”

For many, a volunteer vacations is the highlight of the summer. It’s a chance to spend a week outdoors, eat wonderful food, make new friends and enjoy the accomplishment of improving trails for hikers. It’s also a chance to play cribbage with new friends, take a hike to a new location and watch shooting stars streak across the sky. Dedicating a full week to trail work has many other benefits as well: Volunteers can work in more remote locations, they can tackle large projects and crews get time to really get to know each other and form a connection.

While volunteer vacations are a lot of fun, they’re also absolutely vital to
trails and the hiking community. Every year, state and federal funding for trail maintenance continues to shrink. As that happens, WTA works to fill the gap as much as possible. Our work, made possible by our volunteers, helps keep trails hikable for everyone to enjoy.

“Some really amazing magic happens out there,” Tim said. “We have a great community. It’s the stories of the stuff that happens on the trail and the connections that are made that make volunteer vacations awesome. For years after a volunteer vacation, if volunteers meet in the grocery store, they’ll remember the rock they moved. … What we’re doing is not just building trails, we’re building communities.”

2Colchuck Lake 8.12.17 by Beth Macinko (26).jpgVolunteers working on rock steps along the Colchuck Lake trail. Photo courtesy Beth Macinko.

A Year of Volunteer Vacations

  • Fall: The trails team meets with land managers across the state. At these meetings, a variety of locations are batted around for potential trips.
  • Early winter: The team analyzes the trip options. They look for enough interesting work to last a week, in beautiful locations across the state, with a good campsite and options for hiking on volunteers’ off day.
  • Late December: The team ensures that stock support is available for backcountry trips and sketches out a draft schedule, which is verified by land managers and WTA staff.
  • Mid-January: The trails team finalizes plans for each volunteer vacation and backcountry trip.
  • Late January: The trails team finishes compiling trip details for registration.
  • February 10: Registration opens at 10 a.m.
  • Mid-February: The team works to finalize staffing for the upcoming season.
  • Early March: Packing operations commence in North Bend. Menus are finalized for the season, gear lists are updated and spreadsheets (so many spreadsheets) are updated.
  • April: The first trips begin, at the rate of one or two trips a week. Throughout the season, crew leaders and the trails team are scouting trails before volunteers arrive.
  • May and June: The volunteer trip season ramps up, with three to four trips a week. 
  • July and August: This is the height of the season, and up to five trips can be happening at once. The packing facility is busy with staff and volunteers prepping for trips and sorting through items that have returned from previous trips. The trails team is constantly busy, adjusting trips as necessary to accommodate issues that arise, such as fires that close trails.
  • September: The season begins to slow down.
  • October: The trips have wrapped up. All gear is returned to the packing facility and cleaned and repaired as needed. The trails team reviews the season, pores over feedback from crew leads, land managers and volunteers, and looks for ways to perfect the system even more for the next year—and the cycle begins again.
This article originally appeared in the Nov+Dec 2017 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.