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Camp Life on a Volunteer Vacation

A long time volunteer recounts what keeps her coming back to participate in volunteer vacations year after year: the teamwork and the ritual of life in camp.

by Janice Van Cleve

I love the rhythms and rituals of camp life on a volunteer vacation. After fourteen years and eighteen work camps with Washington Trails Association, I’ve come to appreciate the patterns and procedures that make these camps function. Sure, we work hard building trails and repairing trails and the locations and challenges may differ, but the routines of camp life remain the same.

Volunteers relax after a long day of trail work. Photo by Own Vogeli.
Volunteers relax after a long day of trail work. Photo by Own Vogeli. 

Setting up camp

Each trip begins with setting up camp where there is access to water. We’ve camped by gushing streams and meager trickles, by lakes and ponds and sometimes in established camping areas with a pump or a faucet. Whatever our source, we use our own filtration system, which is a large bag suspended from a tree or post with a filter inside. A tube from the bag runs the clean water into collapsible plastic cubes from which we fill our water bottles and get our cooking water.

One of the rhythms of camp life is whenever somebody notices the bag is empty, they take one of the collapsible buckets and refill it. This usually takes two people — one to hold the bag and the other to pour. All somebody has to do is ask for help, and another person will immediately jump up to lend a hand. This is the cooperative spirit that pervades camp life.

On a Volunteer Vacation the cook tent is the hub of activity. Photo by Jill Simmons.
 The cook tent is the hub of activity at camp. Photo by Jill Simmons.

The cook tent is the next priority. It takes all hands to assemble the poles, fit the tent shell and the tarp, set up the stove and move the panniers and bins inside. The kitchen then becomes the domain of the cook who hooks up the propane and sorts the food, making sure the breakfast stuff is together in one place, lunch in another, snacks in a third, etc.

Because this cargo is often brought in on horseback by the Backcountry Horsemen of Washington, everything is first packed into the panniers and bins with weight and balance as the main concern, not meal type. We fix the horse trails and they transport our food and tools. It’s another part of the cooperative spirit of camp life.

A train of pack horses brings gear to camp. Photo by Jill Simmons.
A train of pack horses brings gear to camp. Photo by Jill Simmons. 

Then we have to dig a sump. This enables us to dump our waste water someplace where it will soak into the ground. Unless there is an outhouse close by, we also have to dig a latrine. People generally volunteer to complete these group priorities before they set up their own tents.

This is partly because it is a cooperative spirit that brings us out here in the first place and partly because we can be very picky about where our private homes will be for the week. Some prefer a little solitude, others want a particular terrain.

As for me, I want a place from which I can find the latrine when Nature calls in the middle of the night.

Off to Work we go 

Every day in camp begins at 5:30 a.m. The early risers get to the cook tent and start the hot water going for coffee and tea. Then they lay out the lunch stuff so everybody can make a pack lunch as we will be out on the trail at midday.

There’s fruit and trail mix, sandwich makings and chips. Some people fill water bottles, some lace up boots and get their hard hats, while others step up to help with breakfast. Every time someone enters the cook tent they use the hand sanitizer. Everybody is busy. 

Each day on a Volunteer Vacation starts with a delicious breakfast. Photo by Britt Le.
Each day starts with a delicious breakfast. Photo by Britt Le.

By 7:00 a.m. breakfast is ready. We eat hearty with eggs, bacon, pancakes, sausage, French toast, burritos, fruit and cereal. Meanwhile somebody has fired up the hot water for cleanup.

We have four tubs for dishwashing: scrub, first rinse, second rinse, and bleach to sanitize. Whoever finishes breakfast first usually gets the tubs ready. People gather to work each station and hold open a net where the clean dishes go to hang dry until they are needed again — more cooperative spirit in action.

Volunteers work together to wash the dishes after a delicious meal.
Volunteers wash the dishes in camp after a delicious meal. Photo by WTA volunteers. 

When everything has been cleaned we have a parade. The washers march to the sump with the scrub tub in the lead. All four tubs are emptied in order, then returned to the table upside down to wait for supper.

People then scurry about with last minute preparations before heading to work. They zip up tents, brush teeth at the sump, visit the latrine and gather up their gear. By 8:00 a.m. we are on the move.

All together now

At the end of the day’s work, we return to camp. The first one to get back makes a pitcher of Gatorade and gets out the chips, because people will be thirsty and need some salt.

As others arrive, they refill the water filter bag, get out the recycle and trash bags and wash up. Then folks have a little time to rest, take a nap, wash up—in either the portable shower if we are lucky enough to have one or a nearby stream — and see to their personal gear.

Good food and good friends on a volunteer vacation. Photo by Austin Easter.
Good food and good friends on a volunteer vacation. Photo by Austin Easter. 

At 5:00 p.m. it is time to start supper. No matter how long we have been out in the field or how hard we have worked, everybody pitches in to help. We eat hearty each night with steak, salmon, salad, pulled pork, chili and even Madras lentils! Of course there are vegetarian or even vegan options for those who want them — and there is always dessert.

Afterwards comes the dishwashing routine with the parade again, then we secure the compost and the food. Later we gather for games or share stories around a campfire, and around 8:00 p.m. we retreat to our tents.

Volunteers play cards at camp after a long day of trail work. Photo by Emily Snyder.
Volunteers play a card game in camp. Photo by Emily Snyder. 

I think it is the camaraderie and cooperative spirit that makes the rhythm and rituals of camp life such a wonderful vacation from our regular lives back home. And we get some good work done too.

Janice Van Cleve is a devoted WTA volunteer who has 147 days of trail work to her credit.