Like a Boss -- One Youth Volunteer Learns to Lead on Trail
Learn how Haylee Darby went from volunteer to youth ambassador to assistant crew leader.
By Haylee Darby
Nervously, I drove up the winding road to the Sunrise parking lot in Mount Rainier National Park. At 16, not only was I a new driver, cautiously turning the road’s sharp corners, not looking at the steep drop-offs, but I was also nervous about what my first day of trail work with Washington Trails Association would hold.
My high school friend used WTA as a hiking resource and introduced me to the website when I was 15 and discovering hiking for the first time. I thought the website was fantastic and used it to gain information about hikes I dreamed about. For years beforehand, I had looked at trails in awe, wondering how they had been created and by whom. But the green hard hat didn’t catch my eye until I was searching for volunteer activities to fulfill requirements for my school’s Honor Society.
So there I was, leaving right at 6 a.m. so I could arrive at 8 a.m. to meet the crew. Once I entered the group of volunteers, I immediately felt welcomed. Though I was the only person there under the age of 30, no one looked down on me for my age and they were so excited for my inaugural trail work party. I spent that day picking gravel off the side of the trail and carrying loads of rocks. I met new people who were interested in me and spent a glorious day with Mount Rainier as a companion.
From then on, volunteering with WTA meant so much more to me than an easy way to complete my volunteer hours. I joined more work parties and even got some of my friends to come along.
When 2017 came around, I made it my New Year’s resolution to complete a work party once every month. I met some of the crew leaders, earned my hard hat and made friends across all spectrums of ages who loved doing the same rough and dirty work as me. I technically failed my resolution since I only did 10 work parties out of the 12 months, but even still, I count it as a win for a busy junior and senior student in high school.
Besides my (almost) monthly day work parties, I signed up for an eight-day youth volunteer vacation in the Pasayten Wilderness. I purposely signed up for the trip that looked the most difficult since I love a good sufferfest. And as I climbed the 10 miles (and 2,000 feet of elevation gain) out of the Pasayten River Valley to Slate Pass, after I had helped build two turnpikes, I had no regrets. Though I had virtually no backpacking experience prior to this trip, my volunteer vacation is something I hope to never forget.
It was a big jump from overnighters to an eight-day backcountry trip. But my excitement for the trip overcame my intimidation, and my lack of experience was easily mitigated by the kindness and help of the crew leaders. (I did, however, complete the trip with an overwhelming sense of what a blessing it is to have a clean bed, running shower and working toilet.) I also gained immeasurable knowledge about backpacking, building turnpikes and felling trees. I even found my favorite tool: the crosscut saw.
On this trip, I was able to work closely with a U.S. Forest Service worker named Abby Ludeman, a seasonal ranger for the Methow Ranger District. She had a determined work ethic and fascinating stories of working as a forestry technician. I spent as much time as I could listening to her and absorbing her wealth of knowledge on trail work, backcountry camping and more. I could see an older version of myself in Abby. In one week, she inspired me so much that I hope to work for the Forest Service in the future.
After this trip—and a good long shower—I was invited to become a youth ambassador with WTA. As a youth ambassador, I have gone to several different schools in the Tacoma area, giving presentations about what participating in trail work with WTA looks like and how students can sign up for volunteer vacations. Youth ambassadors also have to complete two projects each year. My projects included starting a hiking club at my high school and creating a trail work day for the club.
In the past, I have loved using school holidays to take other students hiking, whether it was a Memorial Day trip to Camp Muir or a Veterans Day trip to Snow Lake. Finding ways to get my school friends outside is one and the same with my love for the outdoors. When I became student body president during my senior year, I made it a point to create clubs for the school. Naturally, I created a hiking club and have had the pleasure of seeing up to 30 students and chaperones participate in hikes.
Another project was to become an assistant crew leader for WTA. Even before attending my volunteer vacation, I knew I wanted to become an assistant crew leader (ACL). In the activities I am passionate about, I love finding ways in which I can grow my leadership skills and encourage others to participate. Though I barely made the age cutoff for training, I applied and was ecstatic when I was accepted. Four days before my 18th birthday, I attended the ACL orientation at WTA’s Seattle headquarters and received my copy of “Lightly on the Land” and a shiny orange hard hat.
In March this year, I drove 11 students from my hiking club to their first day of trail work at Swan Creek Park in Puyallup. Blue skies and warm temperatures made for an unforgettable work party. We worked on widening the trail, creating multiple drainage ditches and cutting back the brush from the sides of the trail. The trail is in an urban area, so we saw multiple hikers, and many were thrilled that we were working in their neighborhood park. Gratitude from others is infectious, and throughout the day I could see the students working hard and happily on their specific projects. Most of them had never participated in trail work before, and as we left the trailhead, almost everyone asked me when the club could do another day of work with WTA.
On this work party, I was grateful for the multitude of other work parties I had previously been on. Because my work party experience has ranged from the blazing heat to bitter cold and from extremely productive trail building to not accomplishing much at all, I have many different examples of an assistant crew leader’s role. I also remember how kind other ACL’s have been to me in the past, whether it was a pair of warm gloves loaned or simply friendly conversation. Now, I feel comfortable helping out with the tool talk, whereas before, I could never remember which was a McLeod or a Pulaski. Having observed other ACLs and grown in my knowledge of trail work instilled in me the confidence I needed to grow in my new leadership position.
As an assistant crew leader for the first time, I realized how much I enjoy this position as well as how much I have left to learn. This makes me all the more excited to embrace this new leadership role with Washington Trails Association.
See you on the trails!