Every once in a while, I have an opportunity to get out of my office and go visit a volunteer work crew in the field. These are often the most rewarding parts of my job: I get to get off the computer and out into the beautiful landscapes that we work so hard to protect, and to actually meet the people who are getting dirt under their fingernails to make it happen.
This was the case last Friday, when I biked and hiked almost all the way to the Carbon Glacier to meet up with a youth crew working on the Wonderland Trail with the Washington Trails Association. WTA has been leading "volunteer vacations" for a couple of years now at Mount Rainier, including youth crews, and I've been meaning to get out and see one in action. But unlike the SCA Community Crew I visited last week, which just happened to be working on the trail across from my office, this group was based out of the old Ipsut Creek Campground, trekking out three or four miles each way on a daily basis to do brushing and tread repair in a remote part of the park. Still, I couldn't bear the thought of putting it off another year... I wanted to meet these intrepid young people and see what they were doing, and what motivated them to do it.
And thus I found myself finally catching up to an energetic group of half a dozen young men and women, ages 15 to 17, mid-day on Friday the 19th of July. I caught them as they were coming back down from work higher up on the trail, and they were moving so rapidly that I was hard-pressed to keep up with them.
Soon they came to their second work site of the day, a side drainage that had washed out in recent winter flooding, and after a brief water break, they set to work rebuilding the eroded trail, digging immense rocks out of the soil in high spots, filling low spots with smaller rocks, and carving out the bank alongside the trail to make easier passage. As they did so, I chatted with them about their experience. They'd come in the previous Saturday, and had been working at various locations all week, with a rest day on Wednesday. Saturday the 20th was to be the day they headed for home. They came from all over the local area -- Seattle, Bellevue, Gig Harbor -- and most of them were looking forward to earning community service credits toward high school graduation. It had been a tiring week, but a good one, and they had developed an efficient comraderie among themselves, which showed in the easy way they worked together to pry out rocks or deliver them, fire brigade style, to where they needed to go.
It took so long to get out to their work location that I only had about an hour or so to spend with them before I needed to head back to the trailhead. Even so, stopping to chat with a few visitors on my way out, I had only just reached Ipsut Creek Camp again when they caught up with me, hiking hard on their way back to camp for the evening. Several of the people I had encountered along the trail thanked me for how nice the trail looked. "Don't thank me," I said. "When you pass the trail crew up ahead, tell them how grateful you are for their hard work."
WTA will have two more "volunteer vacations" in the field at Mount Rainier this summer -- an adult crew at Indian Bar starting the 7th of August, and another youth crew on the east side of the park beginning August 11. And, of course, WTA leads day-long trail projects every week on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays: just check their website to sign up!