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A view along the way to Cow Creek Meadows, one of the many locations the Lost Trails Found crew has worked this season. Photo by Zack Sklar.

My Journey to an Outdoor Career

How WTA helped me gain the skills to transition from the classroom to the backcountry. By Iman Chatila

Growing up, I didn’t hike much. Now, I love it so much I’ve made it my career — and this summer I’m working with WTA on our Lost Trails Found crew.  

I was enthusiastic and curious about hiking, but it took a long time and a lot of community help to get to where I am. First, I had to overcome some obstacles, such as getting to the trailhead without a car. I began with research on how to prepare for a hike. One of my first hikes was Lake 22, which caught my interest in trip reports and photos. I suggested it to a friend who was able to drive us there.

I was stunned, seeing an alpine lake for the first time! I was going through an emotional conflict at the time, and getting to reflect on that with my hiking companion was relieving. Catching up while taking in the forest was the rejuvenating experience I was looking for. I quickly fell in love with being in the forest and the fresh air, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Iman and a fellow Lost Trails Found crew member hold each end of a crosscut as they saw a log in a burn zone.
Iman Chatila is a member of WTA’s Lost Trails Found crew this summer. They’ve spent the summer working on at-risk trails. Photo by Zachary Toliver.

I wanted to try backpacking, but again, I had to figure out how. I was living off an Americorps stipend while working with high school students. I didn’t have the gear, transportation or knowledge to execute a trip on my own. I googled “Seattle backpacking workshop” and found WTA’s Outdoor Leadership Training. It was the perfect opportunity for me to transition deeper into the outdoor world and combine that with being an educator. WTA’s OLT gave me a scholarship, got me a ride to the North Cascades and loaned me the gear I needed.

I was eager to go on my first backpacking trip. We spent the first day getting to know each other and discussing planning and preparation. I learned about Leave No Trace principles, filtering water, food packing and reading a map — information that was useful to me and that I was excited to share with others. 

The next day, we hiked into the backcountry to practice what we’d learned. After that trip, I knew that being an outdoor educator would allow me to combine a passion for mentoring youth with the inspiration I gained from nature.

After the trip, I asked Jean, one of the WTA instructors, for an informational interview to discuss ways to move into outdoor education. Jean recommended Young Women Empowered’s Nature Connections program and I became a volunteer mentor with them. 

Through Y-WE, I went hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing with youth. That led to a seasonal job as a wilderness instructor for the YMCA’s BOLD & GOLD program and later a job at the North Cascades Institute. 

Teaching youth in the backcountry brought me energy and joy. On one trip on the Olympic Coast, we had to climb steep bluffs between the forest and the shore. One by one, we pulled ourselves, plus our heavy packs, up makeshift ladders of frayed ropes and worn planks. It was something we had to do individually, but with the encouragement of the team. I felt pride and solidarity in persevering. 

A couple years into my outdoor career, I started to think more about the work that goes into making a trail. I wanted to try that work myself, so I joined a volunteer vacation with WTA. I enjoyed the work and wanted to keep pursuing it so I joined a chainsaw crew with Arizona Conservation Corps. 

As soon as I put my chaps, hardhat, safety glasses and gloves on, I felt like a professional. I learned how to put a chainsaw together, then I turned it on and cut through a log for the first time. I felt like I was challenging my gender role by running a power tool and being outside the “caregiver” duty that I embodied while supervising youth. I found that seasonal work pairs well with my love of traveling, learning technical skills and doing a variety of new hands-on tasks. 

Iman holds a morel mushroom found while sawing logs in an old burn area.
Iman holding up a morel mushroom found in an old burn zone. Photo by Ginevra Moore.

I wanted to continue that work and grow as a professional, so I applied to the Lost Trails Found crew. I was thrilled to learn it would be a season full of backcountry camping and crosscut saw work. On our first trip, I again got the satisfaction of being part of a team, putting in long hours and seeing the before and after of our efforts. 

With every log that we cleared, we unlocked another few feet of trail. Seeing the mountains in the distance while getting into the back-and-forth rhythm of the crosscut is a feeling that can’t be beaten. After work, we returned to camp, slipped on our comfy shoes, cooked dinner and socialized. We played card games, shared stories and laughed. I don’t know what my future holds beyond this season, but I am confident I will be inspired as the season progresses. 

As someone who benefited from the generosity of this community to get my outdoor career started, I hope others wanting to get involved can also find the support they need.  WTA is a great place to start, whether you decide to join a work party, talk to a staff member or just use their hiker resources. There are lots of opportunities out there, and the outdoor field can and should be accessible to anyone interested.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.