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My 2,500 Mile Journey to Build Trails

Posted by Krista Dooley at Aug 24, 2015 04:15 PM |
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Youth volunteer Elizabeth Hopmann traveled from Texas to participate in two youth volunteer vacations this summer. Read her perspective of the experience.

Youth volunteer Elizabeth Hopmann traveled from Texas to participate in two youth volunteer vacations this summer. Read her perspective of the experience, which was not only her first time volunteering, but also her first time camping, both in the frontcountry and backcountry.

By Elizabeth Hopmann

My family dropped me off at the Houston airport at 7:30 a.m. In my relatively new hiking boots and a bulky red backpack borrowed from my uncle I was an anomaly standing next to my family, who were all dressed for church. I visit my grandparents at their house in Washington every summer, but this time I wasn't meeting them at the other end. Instead I'd be looking for a van that would take me to Beacon Rock State Park in the Columbia River Gorge for a week of trail work.

Searching for somewhere to volunteer

My school, St. Pius X, runs a program called Christian Service Learning or CSL. Through this program, we are required to volunteer 100 hours of service with just one organization. I'd made the decision three months earlier to commit my hundred hours of service to Washington Trails Association, a fairly common choice made by Seattle area high-schoolers in need of service hours.

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But I live in Texas.

I knew I wanted to do trail work, so I began searching for programs; of all the programs I found WTA's seemed to be the most advanced and organized. I could not find anything similar in Texas, so I decided to extend my annual summer trip to Washington to include the two volunteer trips.

Learning the ropes and loving the company

The Beacon Rock trip was a huge learning experience, as I had never actually gone camping before. The only trail work I had ever done previously involved pouring mulch onto flat Texas wetland rather than digging out the side of a mountain, which was the work we were scheduled to complete over the week.

Every morning we would pack lunches, including a sandwich made with hearty Dave’s Killer Bread, (which I had previously never heard of) and begin the trek up to the work site. I discovered I am a fairly slow hiker. (There aren't many mountains where I live, so I think this is understandable). The project site was near the top of the trail and once there, we worked rerouting a section of very steep trail.

Beacon Rock work elizabeth hopmann
The crew relaxes at lunch (l). The completed section of tread (r). Photos courtesy Elizabeth Hopmann.

The work was fun because so much goes into building a new section of trail. Almost every day we had something new to accomplish, whether it was lopping shrubs, removing tree stumps, or building a rock wall.

In our time off, we enjoyed cooking our own meals, swimming in the river and playing Bananagrams and card games.

One thing that stood out to me was that though this was a youth trip, we were given the responsibility of adults. I truly appreciated this, because in my previous experiences with youth programs and camps, young people are not always given this responsibility. Thought-provoking conversations about culture, education, and politics prevailed throughout the week, which made it evident that the people who choose to take these trips truly care about society, as well as the environment surrounding them.

Beacon Rock crew fun elizabeth hopmann
The kitchen crew poses on salmon and pasta night (l). The whole crew stayed cool by swimming in the river on warm days (r). Photos courtesy Elizabeth Hopmann.

Before I knew it, the week was over. We ended the last full day with a hike up Beacon Rock, popsicles, and a game of capture the flag.

But I wasn't finished with my work for the summer.

A change of scenery and exploring a new place

Right after the Beacon Rock trip, I headed for the Esmeralda trailhead in central Washington for my backcountry trip, and I was not at all prepared for the weather change. The low 90 degree weather that I relished at Beacon Rock was traded for chilly nights and mornings in the Cascades. By the second day, I was borrowing a fleece and ear warmers from the trip leaders.

Practically speaking, the hiking and working was no more challenging than on the first trip, and the living situation wasn’t much different. It was the cold and a bout of homesickness which got to me.

crew moves rocks at esmeralda basin elizabeth hopmann
A few crew members moving rocks at Esmeralda Basin. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Hopmann.

The scenery at Esmeralda was remarkably beautiful, as we had a view of Mount Rainier from our worksite. The work however, was somewhat repetitive. Instead of building new trails, our job this time was to move all the large and medium sized rocks off of older trails.

youth volunteer vacation group shot elizabeth hopmann
The Esmeralda Volunteer Vacation at the top of the pass above Lake Ann. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Hopmann.

Despite the repetitiveness of the work, it could have been much worse. And after all, we had volunteered to be there. We even had a day off, which we spent climbing across the pass to Lake Ann, where we froze ourselves in the glacial lake and spent the rest of the day relaxing.

Reflecting on a remarkable experience

There were so many things I learned about myself and others while volunteering with WTA. I would recommend the experience to anyone willing to get their hands dirty and looking to volunteer with an unconventional group of people. By far, the volunteers building trails are the most diverse, yet connected group I have been around.

It is truly special to get to speak with others about everything from recycling to world travel to the best way to remove a tree stump over the course of a week spent together. WTA volunteers are united by the difficult, rewarding work they do in one of the most beautiful places on earth, no matter how diverse each individual may be.