How do we recruit more volunteers? Here is one way!

NCTA utilizes Volunteer Vacations to recruit additional volunteers and accomplish much-needed work on the NCT in Minnesota and North Dakota

AHS' Volunteer Vacations program logo

There are segments of the NCT in both Minnesota and North Dakota that are completed but lack the local trail adopters to perform the required annual basic maintenance (e.g. mowing, lopping, maintaining signage).  Like is true in other places along the NCT, many local communities in northern Minnesota or North Dakota are not overflowing with hikers and/or prospective volunteers.  Past efforts to work on these “orphan sections” have included special trail maintenance days (e.g. National Trails Day or National Public Lands Day work projects) or special weekend events (e.g. the 24 Hours of the Chip) mainly using our existing pool of NCT volunteers.  These events, while often successful, are logistically demanding, don’t really help recruit new volunteers, and don’t introduce many new people to the NCT.

One strategy that we have employed out here in the past (and repeated again this year) is to utilize the Volunteer Vacation program run by the American Hiking Society (AHS) to help recruit additional volunteers from outside the immediate area.  AHS, “the national voice for America’s hikers,” is a non-profit organization whose mission is to “promote and protect foot trails and the hiking experience.”  Note: the NCTA is a member of AHS’ alliance of hiking organizations. In conjunction with local partner trail groups or agencies, AHS annually coordinates upwards of 60 Volunteer Vacation projects in 30 States.  Some of the annual projects located along or near the NCT include the Sheyenne National Grasslands (ND), Superior National Forest’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness/Snowbank Lake loop trail (part of which is the Kekekabic Trail) in MN, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore’s Lakeshore Trail (NCT) project in MI.  This year, the Butler Outdoor Club also offered a project at Moraine State Park in PA.

Participating volunteers actually pay a registration fee to AHS that covers the volunteer recruitment, program marketing and administration, and crew food expenses.  Local project hosts’ costs only include the time pulling the project together and being on-site with the crew.  The host can provide the crew leader but doesn’t need to as AHS can provide a highly trained and experienced crew leader.  The local host must also provide:

  • “Project plan and backup plan
  • Technical expertise and supervision for the volunteers
  • Lodging for volunteers (cabin, lodge, house, improved or primitive campsite)
  • Tools & safety equipment including first-aid supplies
  • Group cooking supplies including stove, pots, pans, utensils, and fuel
  • Airport Pickup and Drop-off for volunteers (not required but highly recommended)”

For more information about the AHS Volunteer Vacations program, visit their program website.  For more on what the project host is responsible for, read the host guide.

A total of 10 volunteers have traveled to the western end of the NCT for our 4 projects from as far away as Texas and Virginia and from as close as northern Illinois and southern Minnesota.  Many of these volunteers have volunteered on other trail construction or maintenance projects elsewhere and come with a variety of backcountry living, hiking, and trail work experience.  Some are even younger folks – the age group we often struggle to attract.  While our projects’ volunteer numbers are small, they look really good compared to the numbers of local trail adopters (zero!) we have to do this much-needed work!

I usually ask our volunteers why they chose to participate in our projects.  They often respond with they want to see a different part of the country they haven’t been to before, the project dates were a good fit, or the area appealed to them (e.g. offered opportunities for prairie observation or birding opportunities in North Dakota).  Others were originally from this area and wanted to do something fun and meaningful while returning “home” for a visit.

Here are summaries of who we’ve attracted and what we’ve accomplished…

Sheyenne National Grassland in 2010

The 2010 Sheyenne National Grassland Volunteer Vacation crew stand atop a sweeping vista

The 2010 Sheyenne National Grassland Volunteer Vacation crew (3 from CA and 1 NCTA volunteer from MN) stand atop a sweeping vista

With great support from the U.S. Forest Service, the crew of five (3 Volunteer Vacationers, a NCTA volunteer, and I) re-installed marker posts and installed mileage posts on 10 miles of the NCT and did a streambank stabilization planting.

Lonetree Wildlife Management Area in 2010

The 2010 Lonetree WMA Volunteer Vacation crew poses by the entrance signThe 2010 Lonetree WMA Volunteer Vacation crew (1 from CA, 1 from VA, and 2 NCTA volunteers from MN) poses by the entrance sign

With fantastic support from the N.D. Game & Fish Department, the crew of five (2 Volunteer Vacationers, 2 NCTA volunteers, and I) mowed and re-signed 15 miles of the NCT.

Chippewa National Forest in 2013

The 2013 Chippewa National Forest Volunteer Vacation crew poses by the roadside NCT sign

The 2013 Chippewa National Forest Volunteer Vacation crew (1 from TX, 1 from KS, and 1 from MN) poses by the roadside NCT sign

With superb support from the Chippewa National Forest, the crew of five (3 Volunteer Vacationers, a NCTA volunteer, and I) mowed and thoroughly lopped 7 miles of the NCT and built a small puncheon.

Sheyenne National Grassland in 2013

The 2013 Sheyenne National Grassland Volunteer Vacation crew mows in the early morning

The 2013 Sheyenne National Grassland Volunteer Vacation crew (1 from VA and 1 from IL) mows in the early morning

With excellent support from the Sheyenne National Grassland, the crew of three (2 Volunteer Vacationers and I) mowed, installed mileage posts, and re-set trail marker posts on 16 miles of the NCT.

How does the Volunteer Vacations program work?

  • Project sponsors (in this case, me) apply to host a trip.  There are tips for putting together a good project that will appeal to prospective volunteers.  Not every project is selected!
  • AHS markets the trips to its membership and also to the general public via catalogs (distributed via REI stores nationwide) and via their e-newsletter, Facebook page, and website.  This widely publicizes the North Country Trail and greatly expands our volunteer pool.
  • Volunteers register for the trip via AHS, who keeps the project sponsor informed of the roster.  AHS screens the volunteers but the project sponsor has the ability to contact the registrants and further screen them.  This can be important if the project involves remote work or an extremely difficult project.
  • Once the trip is confirmed (e.g. the minimum number of volunteers is reached), volunteers coordinate their travel plans with the project sponsor.  Volunteers are responsible for all travel costs to and from the site – e.g. airfare, train tickets, mileage, etc.  The project host, in this case me, agrees to pick them up at the airport, train station, or meet them at a designated site if they drive.  Typically, Sunday and Saturday are the travel days to/from the project site.
  • With the leadership of a local project sponsor crew leader (or one supplied by AHS and a local supervisor), volunteers work on the project.  The work to be done can be trail construction, trail maintenance, trail structure construction (e.g. bridge, shelter, etc), invasive species control, environmental restoration,
  • The work schedule typically involves working Monday through Friday with a half-day or full day off during in the week.  I’ve tried to remain flexible to time this with the weather – taking off the hottest day or the rainiest day.  The project host should put together several options for a fun day off activity like touring a local museum, visiting a cool nearby natural feature, etc.  If the project involves lots of hiking, you might not want to plan a long day hike for the off day since everyone could probably stand to rest.

I hope that NCTA Chapters will consider using Volunteer Vacations to help them get their work done.  It can be a lot of work to manage a crew project, but its contributions can (and usually do) justify that effort.  Most chapters already have the skills required to manage a crew and host a successful work project.  Another benefit of these projects is it provides an opportunity to strengthen our partnerships with the local land managers who host the NCT.  The managers get to see that people are willing to come from all over the U.S. to see and help work on the NCT in their area.  In my experience, they take on a sense of pride in their section of the NCT and want to roll out the red carpet for these volunteers.

In addition, working with the Volunteer Vacation program further advances the NCTA’s goals of promoting the NCT as a premier footpath of national significance and attracting new NCT supporters and volunteers.  I also hope that NCTA members will look at the roster of Volunteer Vacation projects every year to see if there is one that they would be interested in.  Volunteering on a project is a great way to see other beautiful trails, gain new skills, meet similarly minded folks, etc.

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