For the last three Septembers, Mike Burville has spent a week’s vacation in some of America’s most picturesque and remote natural settings: Superior National Forest near Ely, Minn., Yosemite National Park in California, and Glacier National Park in Montana.
Instead of backpacking and camping on his own, Burville volunteered free time to maintain and build trails at each place. As part of small stewardship teams with various outdoor nonprofit groups, he has removed deadfalls and cleared portage trails on lakes near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He has helped build retaining walls from boulders on the John Muir Trail in Yosemite, and he’s helped install check dams and drainage ditches on a new section of trail in Glacier.
“I used to go on regular golfing trips with close friends each September, but when I started getting closer to 50, I realized there were many wild places I wanted to visit, and these volunteer vacations were perfect for me,” said Burville, 47, an attorney from Farmington who runs his own practice. “I love being outdoors, and I’ve always liked manual labor. So these trips had everything I was looking for and more.”
So-called volunteer vacations are a seamless fit for adventure-seekers and other outdoors junkies who want to channel some of their energy differently. Many of the “vacations” involve maintaining, restoring and building the nation’s hiking trails. They happen in state parks, state and national forests, and federal land jurisdictions. Officials say volunteers are essential to deal with the backlog of trail needs around the country, including in Minnesota. Though smaller in scope and duration, Minnesota volunteer trips are out there, for example, through the Border Route Trail Association and the Minnesota Rovers outdoors club.
“More and more people are looking to have a purpose behind their vacations,” said Libby Wile, senior director of volunteer stewardship for the American Hiking Society in Silver Spring, Md. “Volunteer vacations foster public land stewardship and provide volunteers the opportunity to give back to the trails they love, meet new people, and have a great time in some of the most beautiful public places America has to offer.”
The American Hiking Society each year publicizes a lengthy nationwide list of weeklong volunteer vacations. This year, the nonprofit group offers 55 different trail-building and restoration trips, which run from February to December. Other nonprofits, including the Conservation Volunteers International Program and Wilderness Volunteers, offer much the same.
Wile said volunteers come from all walks of life and from across the country. The age range is wide, too, from teenagers to some people in their early 80s. Trip crews consist of five to 16 volunteers and are accompanied by a crew leader. Tools and supervision are provided by the host agency or organization. All trips are rated based on their degree of difficulty. Easier trips, for example, have modern sleeping accommodations (in cabins or bunkhouses) and amenities and require shorter day-hikes, and the work usually revolves around general trail maintenance. Harder trips usually require backpacking up to 10 miles in higher elevations into a base camp. The trail work is considered “strenuous to very strenuous.” Volunteers must also provide their own camping gear. In addition, volunteers pay a registration fee (typically from $200 to about $3,000, depending on the trip location and organization) and are responsible for transportation. A typical workday is about six hours.
“We don’t require any previous trail-maintenance experience, but our projects do stress the need to be in good physical condition — we definitely work hard and get our hands dirty,” Wile said. “Volunteers have a wide variety of trips to choose from. But they should be realistic about what they can do before they commit to a trip.”
If you’re looking for a volunteer vacation with an international destination, Conservation Volunteers International Program provides trips to the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, the Machu Picchu Sanctuary in Peru, the Scottish Highlands, and elsewhere.
“We started focusing on our international sites because they don’t get the volunteer support we get here in the U.S.,” said Chris Braunlich, Conservation Volunteers’ chief executive. “Every park could use more support, but the ones in the U.S. get a lot of help from local groups and other volunteers.”
As for the attorney from Farmington, Burville said his weeklong stints have allowed him time in some breathtaking natural settings with like-minded people. Some have become his close friends.
“I started doing these trips primarily as a way to be out in the woods and to see places that I had not been to, without having to visit them alone,” said Burville, who also hunts and fishes. “Most of my family or friends are either not interested in backcountry travel or have physical limitations, or family or work obligations that don’t allow them to go. An extra benefit has been meeting people from around the country … and hearing their stories and about other places to travel.”
Because his job requires catering to every detail of his clients, Burville said he appreciated how little effort is required to taking a volunteer trip.
“Since all of the real organizational work for these trips is done by sponsoring groups, all I have to do is pick one that falls on a week that works for my schedule, and I can go without having to worry about coordinating schedules with others,” he said. This year, Burville will take another weeklong volunteer vacation to Denali National Park in Alaska.
“I strongly recommend these trips to people who don’t need to control their daily schedules on a trip like this but wish to get out and meet people and be in some of the most beautiful places in our country,” he said. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in providing the volunteer labor to keep up these trails. It’s especially satisfying when you’re at a busy place like Yosemite and you see hundreds of people a day using a lot of the front-country trails and the beating that those trails take.”
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org