MOUNT VERNON, Wash. - Vacations are about getting away.
And if your idea of getting away means hiking for miles under big skies to unspoiled destinations to spend a week camping, sawing, digging, moving and building, then the Washington Trails Association has just the vacation for you.
Volunteer Vacations are weeklong work parties offered through the WTA in association with the National Forest Service.
"This is just a great way to give something back," said WTA crew leader Tim Van Beek. "You meet a lot of good people, make friends and it's a real kick in the pants. You eat well and see a lot of beautiful country."
Van Beek went on nine Volunteer Vacations a year ago. This year, he'll be the crew leader on 13 of the outings.
"I'm excited," he said. "This is my dream job."
Lee Harrison-Smith of Clear Lake took such a vacation last year and is looking forward to trekking into the backcountry again this summer. Last year was his inaugural foray into a Volunteer Vacation.
"It was sort of a unique situation for me," Harrison-Smith said. "I have a friend that is a crew leader with the WTA and he'd been trying to get me out on one of these weeklong work parties for a couple of years. I finally broke down and decided, why not?
"I learned a lot about trail maintenance," he added. "I appreciate the trails I hike a lot more now that I understand how much work goes into maintaining them."
A selling point for Harrison-Smith was the destination of his Volunteer Vacation - the Heart Basin area near Packwood in the shadow of Mount Rainier.
"The location really made the difference," he said. "It was a 10-mile hike in, so we were going to be pretty isolated. I really liked the aspect of being that far out and away. It was a real neat experience.
"Heart Basin is at about 6,000 feet in elevation. It was really beautiful. We saw herds of mountain goats and lots of waterfalls. We worked five days because they give you a day to hike in and a day to hike out."
Volunteer Vacationers get Wednesdays off.
"That gives you a chance to explore what lays farther up the trail," Harrison-Smith said. "On our day off, it was rainy and it hailed a lot, so we just hung out at camp by a big fire."
Volunteers sign on to rebuild tread, install drainage, cut brush and remove trees using a two-man crosscut saw.
"Trails need a lot of work," Van Beek said, "and there isn't a lot of money to fix them. It's up to volunteers to get the needed work done. It's sort of our job as people who spend a lot of time in the outdoors to get others involved. This is a great way to do that. That's what the WTA is all about."
Harrison-Smith's party worked specifically on building turnpikes. Turnpikes replace sections of trail that have sunk and become mud bogs. The crew digs down, then builds up the sides of the trail, putting rocks on the bottom to allow water to percolate through. It then places a layer of gravel and finally more rocks over the top.
"Because this trail was used by horses, there were a lot of really muddy spots," Harrison-Smith said. "We also cut a few logs and trees that had fallen across the trail."
It was an effort just to get to the work site for Harrison-Smith. He definitely didn't mind.
"Every morning, we'd get up and take off," he said. "We were camped about two miles from where we were working. That two-mile hike was nice to have. It sort of broke up the day."
These Volunteer Vacations are by no means strictly backbreaking work. Rule No. 2, right behind safety, is to have fun. Rule No. 3 is to get some work done.
"There's no pressure," Harrison-Smith said. "If you don't want to do something, then you don't have to. They really try to make it fun and it's really a mellow work day. But things get done. We saw progress every day."
The cost to participate in a Volunteer Vacation is $125 for non-WTA members and $100 for members.
Volunteers are provided with a week's worth of food, transportation to the trailhead, the necessary tools and other supplies.
And all that gear isn't strapped to your back. Professionals pack it in for you on horses, mules and even llamas.
All you are responsible for is a tent, sleeping bag and any other personal gear deemed necessary.
"They pack in all the necessary gear on mules and horses," Harrison-Smith said. "Basically, we had to bring clothing and personal items."
This year, the WTA is offering about 25 Volunteer Vacations to locations throughout the state. It's something just about anyone can participate in.
Van Beek said that if a person can hike a trail, he or she can work it because no one is asked to do more than they are capable of.
So what type of person signs on for these Volunteer Vacations?
"It's a very diverse group," Van Beek said. "Ages range anywhere from 18 to 80. And we have a real variety of people.
"My to-do list of hikes just keeps getting longer because you meet so many people who have hiked all over," he added. "It's really amazing."
Harrison-Smith said there was a woman who turned 50 on his Volunteer Vacation. The group celebrated with a cake made from a stack of pancakes.
Harrison-Smith is making plans for this year's Volunteer Vacation.
"I want to go up into the Enchantments," Harrison-Smith said.
Van Beek is leading his first group of 11 Volunteer Vacationers to the Lakeshore Trail along the shores of Lake Chelan. The group will be getting the trail ready for this hiking season.
"We have a good mixture of rookies and veterans," Van Beek said of his first work party of the year. "We have a couple people who have done a lot of these trips. Then we have a person who has never done one before. That makes it fun."
They will be building tread and removing blowdown. The area was ravaged by a massive fire in 2001, and the trees are slowly dying. Snow and wind bring many down.
"Last year, we removed 50 or 60 trees off the trail," Van Beek said. "We built a rock wall and fixed tread.
"We'll walk three miles up the trail and see what we get this time," he added. "You never know what you'll encounter. You could encounter something that takes you all day, or something quick. You just don't know."
Then there's that location, location, location.
"It's just beautiful up there," Van Beek said. "It's nice, nice, nice. It's a beautiful area that needs a lot of work."
So, don't worry about contacting your travel agent or booking flights.
If this kind of getaway fits into your summer plans, simply log onto www.wta.org and click on Volunteer Vacations.
Then prepare to hit the trail.
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