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Hello, How Can I Help You? Meet WTA's Kim Brown

Posted by Erika Haugen-Goodman at Sep 02, 2015 12:05 PM |
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If you call the WTA office, you'll most likely be greeted by the voice of Kim Brown, resident expert on all things hiking and chocolate.

When you call WTA’s Seattle office, chances are you’ll be greeted by Kim Brown. Kim started volunteering with WTA in 1997 and has worked on staff in one capacity or another for more than a decade. She’s out hiking or volunteering nearly every week, all year long.

She credits her time at WTA with prompting her to study wetland science and environmental policy and maintains a blog detailing history and natural oddities found along the trail at She's also a volunteer Backcountry Wilderness Ranger for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest out of Skykomish, where she enjoys talking to fellow hikers on the trail.

We caught her in the office, and talked about her work with WTA and the questions she fields on the phone.

Kim Brown Interview
Kim posing next to a pretty impressive fungus. Photo by Gwen Tollefson

What are your favorite kinds of calls?

I like calls that begin with, “I have a dumb question,” because there are no dumb questions and I like making people feel comfortable about seeking help. Plus, I learn a lot from many callers, so it goes both ways! I like questions from Eagle Scouts or troop leaders who are doing research for their troop. I also like calls from people who want to do the right thing, but may not know what that is. I'm happy to tell them about regulations, since there are so many land agencies it can be confusing.

Calls from long-time hikers are especially fun. I enjoy history and have chatted with fire lookouts from the 1940s, loggers from the '60s, forest firefighters, and hikers who have been subscribers to Signpost Magazine (now Washington Trails) for 49 years!

What are the most common questions you get?

Questions about trail passes are the most common, as well as questions that require explanations of regulations and policies across different lands, like Department of Natural Resources, national parks and national forests versus state parks. I like it when callers have time to hop onto the website and I can teach them how to search for hikes in a certain area.

I also get questions about where to go hiking. This is where trip reporters come in handy. In late spring, people want to get to the high country to see flowers, but there's still a lot of snow out there. By referencing trip reports, I can tell callers where to go. Often, it's a place they haven't heard of. Some people are pleasantly surprised by the variety of natural beauty in our state.

How do you go about recommending hikes to people?

Every morning, I read the latest trip reports to see what’s going on out there. Sometimes I'll call the Forest Service or a national park for clarification on a closure or washout that may have been mentioned. Migrating birds, salmon runs, fall color—all these things change constantly. Trip reports tell me what the flora and fauna are up to so I can recommend the best experience for the season.

Time of year is important too. You have different risk factors on trail as well as different things to enjoy. Snow bridges, avalanches, river crossings, rattlesnakes, wildfire -- nature can throw a lot of wrenches into a hike and it's hard to get all the information to feel comfortable heading out. So I look for warnings of those in trip reports, too.

Once someone calls the office, I like to figure out what he or she knows and what I can teach. It can be confusing to plan a hike with so many choices and different land agencies, so during our conversation, I listen for keywords to determine the caller's skill level and comfort with agency regulations. There are so many things to consider going into a hike -- it's easy to see why there are no dumb questions.

Why do you hike?

For me, the journey of hiking is within. I like the small things, or the invisible ones, like the sharp odor of Alaska yellow-cedar, skunk cabbage, or sagebrush. The sound of wildlife: bird calls, ice crackling, boulders shifting. And the colors of spawning salmon and butterflies. Learning about wildlife and the function of sagebrush or a forest - trees, roots, fungus, lichen, slugs, soils and slime mold - heightens the joy I feel as I move through the landscape.

I enjoy knowing and learning the landscape and human history of where I'm passing through, and I like to visit familiar places in all seasons and all weather.

I like to stand and contemplate - a wisp of fog flying across a meadow is nature’s vehicle propelled by the spirits of thousands of mountain explorers, racing along to more adventures.

And I like to visit trail features I helped build. A puncheon on Mount Pugh, a rock wall on Boulder River, a swale at Domke Lake--all these mark learning moments for me on trail.

When I'm on a trail, I'm surrounded by memories of friends and family, and many places or experiences on trail remind me of specific people. A branch grabbing my sleeve as I pass on trail is my mom and dad reaching out to me, a tuft of hair ice is Karen Sykes, and a Pacific yew, a bog orchid, or a forest recovering from fire is WTA's Greg Ball.

Anything else you want to share?

Look at maps. Big ones. Know where you are on the landscape. And know the names of the ridges, mountains, lakes, and rivers, and where they are on the landscape. There's more to the outdoors than that one line of tread under your feet. Dream, wander and explore.

A shortened version of this article originally appeared in the Sept+Oct 2015 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.