Top 5 Reasons to do volunteer trail maintenance with a local organization.

Takeaways from volunteering with the British Columbia Mountaineering Club.

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I’ve always romanticized the idea of hard manual labor. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, they say. Well sitting at a desk all day, most days, for the better part of 20 years has often had me ‘peering over the fence’ at a life spent using my body, rather than my brain, as the primary tool for productivity. 

When SOLE introduced 20 hours per year of paid volunteer time for all employees, I knew I would spend mine putting my body to work for a good cause. The only questions were where and with whom? A few weeks ago I saw a call from the British Columbia Mountaineering Club for volunteers to join a work party maintaining the Lizzie Creek backcountry access trail at Lillooet Lake. Excited about the added bonus of camping by a beautiful lake for a couple of nights, I signed up.

Here are the five top reasons I’d encourage others to do the same and volunteer their time to work on trails.

Working on trails is just another way to enjoy beautiful places.

The Lizzie Creek trail winds along a steep stand of old growth fir trees before crossing a broad rockslide and dropping into the valley floor. Here it winds its way up the valley adjacent to a rushing river that would sweep you away if you gave it half a chance. The forest rises densely on either side of the valley, while the trail itself is completely overgrown by seemingly impenetrable brush. 

You're faced by an army of shoulder-high stems with big soft leaves, the shade of bright green reserved for plants that grow fast and die young. The occasional pile of bear scat reminds you that you are in a wild domain. It’s not clear, initially, if the drops falling are new rain, or an earlier downpour still dripping from the boughs above. It’s beautiful and lush and a completely different world from a work-from-home desk in an apartment block in Vancouver.

Contributing to your community feels good.

I spend hundreds of hours a year recreating outdoors. Many of these hours are spent on trails like the Lizzie Creek trail, which leads hikers and backcountry skiers up to an alpine hut. I often think of the people who maintain trails like this, and the many hours of work that must go into building bridges over bogs, clearing fallen trees and so much more. So often that work goes unseen, without the chance to personally thank the people doing it. It felt really good to be putting in some of that work myself, so that other people like me would be able to enjoy the trail in future. 

Working on a trail is uniquely satisfying.

Physical effort almost always comes with a side of satisfaction. That’s why we hike, run or bike. Trail maintenance has the added element of being able to see (as well as feel) the physical result of the work you’ve done while enjoying yourself in the mountains. By the end of 8 hours cutting, clearing and carrying, the hike back out along kilometers of freshly cleared trail feels incredibly satisfying. 

The dappled light of late afternoon filters through the leaves to reveal a clear path where, just hours before, there was a wall of shoulder-high, dense brush or an impassable barricade of interlaced alder branches. When others walk that path they’ll be able to focus on the sound of the river rushing by them, or conversation with friends, rather than figuring out where their next step should lead.

Volunteering gives the chance to work with new people.

On Day 1 of the trip I met trip organizer Brian at the trailhead. We realized it would be just the two of us working that day — others would arrive to join the party as the weekend progressed. Within minutes a complete stranger became a partner in a common goal. We worked all day within shouting distance of each other. Apart from snippets of chit chat over lunch we spoke little - conversation is impossible over the noise of a chainsaw and a brushcutter. On the hike back to our cars we sheltered under a cedar while a hailstorm rolled through, glad of each others’ company and enjoying the chance to get to know each other a bit better. 

By day two the group had grown to include Steve, Chris, Mike, Kevin, Henry, Sean and Emily. We worked under the sun all day, nine strangers with no obligation to be there. A team connected only by a love for the outdoors and a common interest in helping people like ourselves enjoy the beautiful place we were in. The satisfaction I mentioned above is even sweeter when shared with new comrades.

The smell of freshly-cut everything.

You might describe the whole weekend as a pop-up event for saw enthusiasts: a rare opportunity to break out the chainsaws and brush cutters. Cutting through branches and brush alike using blades powered by two-stroke motors is inherently fun. It’s the kind of hard work you can do for hours on end without getting bored. But the best part of it is the smells. The green chlorophyll smell of the thick weedy brush. The occasional distinct scent of cedar or fir as a branch or trunk gets sectioned before being tossed off the trail. 

Cutting through the forest brings an intense and particular sensory experience of the plants that surround you. In a strange way the destruction that must go hand-in-hand with clearing the trail leaves you feeling more connected to the forest; having smelled the very essence of the myriad pieces that make up this beautiful living ecosystem.