Wandering the Wonderland Trails: One Hiker's First Volunteer Vacation Experience
Read about Archana Bhat's first volunteer vacation experience, where she spent seven days in the wilderness, maintaining trails and hiking in the shadow of the iconic Mount Rainier.
Archana Bhat is the mom of twins, a lover of food, an ardent world traveler and is obsessed with taking photos both with her dSLR and iPhone. After just one day-work party she decided to go for it and try out a Volunteer Vacation with WTA. Follow her on facebook for photos and essays from Seattle and beyond.
By Archana Bhat
Seven days in the wilderness, maintaining trails and hiking in the shadow of my beloved Mount Rainier: that's what I signed up for when I registered in early spring for a volunteer vacation with Washington Trails Association. Considering I had done only one local work party and had never camped for more than five days in my life, I didn’t realize the full extent of the adventure that awaited me.
Signing up for a week in the woods
I had the summer off from my consulting job and already had plans to do multiple hiking trips. What better way to train for those trips than a week in the woods? My husband agreed to watch our 8-year old twins, and with his support, I signed up! After the initial registration in February, life got busy, so it wasn't until two weeks before the trip that I got butterflies about the expedition. Who else was going? What if I can’t dig like the rest? What if it rained the entire time?
It was too late to back out; my mom and hubby were lined up to help with the kids, and friends and co-workers were already envying my time off in the woods.
A week before the trip, Kathy, our crew leader, emailed the crew with details for the trip. I had several questions to ask her so we spoke over the phone. Kathy was reassuring and easygoing; she told me that since we were having rangers tote our gear to the campsite, I could bring extra items to make camp cozy, like camp chairs and more clothing. For a first timer, this was a huge relief. I only had to carry a day pack for the five-mile walk in and rest of my gear for seven days would be brought in.
The week before the trip, I double checked the trip agenda. Meet at noon at Mount Rainier on Saturday, bring a sack lunch. We’d be working from Sunday to Saturday, with Wednesday off for a midweek break. The forecast called for good weather for most of the week. Buoyed by the positive forecast and excitement for “me” time, I embarked on a week-long vacation.
Home for the week
We met at the Ipsut Creek Campground trailhead, where Kathy instructed us to drop our gear with the rangers and we headed down the trail. During the flat five-mile walk, I walked along quietly, listening to two other volunteers tell stories and pausing to take photos of wildflowers. In no time, we reached camp to find our gear had beat us there. The kitchen and group lounging tent were already set up, so we each got busy setting up our homes for the week.
Because I like the sound of rushing water, I set up my tent near the river. It turned out the spot I chose was also closest to the kitchen area, great for fast access to food!
After we were settled, Kathy went over camp rules, including the chore list and schedule of meals. We couldn’t find the menu with the meal plan, so we enjoyed trying to figure out the week’s meals based on the provisions provided. Everyone chipped in preparing food and by 6 p.m. dinner was served. After resting in camp, we went over plans for the upcoming work day and then headed to our tents for our first night in camp.
Dreaming of showers and baths
The next morning, I discovered that my co-volunteers were early risers. Most were up by five, had coffee started at five-thirty and breakfast going by six! Since I hadn't slept well in my fancy pants sleeping quarters, I was the last to roll into breakfast. The ranger in charge met us at camp and gave Kathy instructions on the work site and what needed to be done while we packed our lunches for the work day ahead.
By eight or so, we were hiking to work. During the week the hike to the work site ranged from 1.5 to 2.5 miles. The work was hard but we got plenty of breaks for snacks, water and lunch. I had not done such physical manual labor ever and I felt muscles ache that had never before been sore. It made me appreciate every snack like it was fine sushi. Coming back to camp at three and taking a sunny nap felt like a luxurious bath. But no real bath was to be had for the entire week. I knew this going in, but the reality was harsh.
By mid-week I was fantasizing about the bath I would take once I got home. By day seven, I knew it would be a shower and bath combo. One camper was brave enough to take dips in the glacier-fed creek, but I wanted no part of that.
"An outdoor girls dream!"
By Tuesday night, I was ready for break day. Although trail work was gratifying, I was happy to sleep in till the late hour of 7 a.m. on Wednesday, then go on a long hike and spend the day exploring and taking photos. Fortunately, the sun was out, so I decided to head up the Carbon Glacier trail to see the glacier itself. I made the right choice. The four-mile hike to Dick Creek along the Carbon River is stunning. I saw harmless garter snakes, a spotted owl, tons of wildflowers, streams, waterfalls and incredible views of majestic Mount Rainier. With no internet or commitments, I had the entire day to frolic in the woods. An outdoor girl’s dream!
By Thursday, I had the work and rhythm of camp life down. My fitful night sleeps were balanced by afternoon naps, and cooking dinners with volunteers was a great way to tell stories and recite the names of work tools; grubhoe, corona, Pulaski. Then the rain showed up! We were lucky to have had such a sunny and amazing week, but when the rain came down on Thursday, I was not so positive. I scurried from my own tent to the “lounge” tent, trying not to get too wet, huddling with the rest of the group. My rain fly didn't cover my tent very well and in the middle of the night I woke to find wet spots around my head.
I got up on Friday ready to go home. I was a rookie and a fair weather camper, but the expert campers took no heed to my whining. “Push on!” “It’s only one more day!” One asked, “What do you have to go home for?” I had many ideas in my head but refrained from sharing all of them, as it seemed disrespectful. Some of us came back early to camp on Friday and prepped for the Saturday departure. Packing and cleaning up improved my dark mood, so after dinner that night, I decided to stroll into the woods for one final photo walk. The rains had actually created lovely opportunities for macro (or close-up) scenes. I felt one with the earth. I enjoyed the fresh smell of the newly-washed world around me as I watched the clouds clear. Life was good again.
I returned to camp rejuvenated and enjoyed my final night’s sleep. The next morning we made the quick jaunt back to the parking lot and said goodbyes to new friends.
"...one of the most rewarding and fulfilling vacations I've ever had."
The volunteer vacation was hard, but fantastic. It combined my love of the outdoors with service work. It taught me perseverance through struggle and respect for the rangers and the work that they undertake. The work on the trails showed me that nature is mightier than man. The Carbon River’s flooding, its power to demolish everything we build and the views of Mount Rainier are a constant reminder of how minuscule we humans really are.
If you enjoy the outdoors, have some camping experience and want a meaningful service project, consider volunteering with Washington Trails Association. It was one of the most rewarding and fulfilling vacations I’ve ever been on, and I’m looking forward to my next one.
Inspired to join WTA on a multi-night trip?