On the Trails: Trail Corps Program Meeting Goals

Mud season is one of my favorite times of the year. It’s not that I enjoy watching the snow melt away, bottoming out of rutted roads or even hearing the calls of birds as they return from warmer climes. I love this time of year because we at the Upper Valley Trails Alliance are preparing for a fun-filled season of trail projects around our region. Best of all, this is when we start recruiting for the Upper Valley High School Trail Corps program. Over the next few months, we will review many dozens of applications from high school students who want to spend a week with us this summer building trails. Since the launch of the Trail Corps, aptly described as ‘your first job meets summer camp’, hundreds of students have joined us for this amazing program. Back in the fall of 2012, UVTA staff envisioned a program through which high school students would work to build and enhance a myriad of Upper Valley trails. The program was created with two goals in mind: to expand the capacity of the UVTA by offering a dedicated crew to work on trail projects identified with the UVTA and our community alliance members and to cultivate the next generation of trail stewards by offering an introduction to a variety of trails and trail projects. To say we met the first goal is an understatement. The Trail Corps program is continuously oversubscribed, with between 70 and 80 applicants for a maximum of 48 spots. The work of the Trail Corps crew has allowed the UVTA to significantly expand our trail work capacity to meet a growing list of trail projects in the Upper Valley and beyond. Some of these projects have included installing stone steps on Gile Mountain in Norwich, building bridges over Trout Brook in Lyme and improving stretches of the Cross Rivendell Trail in Orford and Fairlee. Our community alliance partners make requests early and often for our services, and the Trail Corps program allows us to get the work done. The second goal — to cultivate the next generation of trail stewards — was a lofty one. Many longtime trail volunteers were “graying out,” and a new local pipeline of trail volunteers was not rising at the pace necessary. The Trail Corps program was designed to offer a local alternative to summer-long programs like the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps and the Student Conservation Association. By offering students a weeklong, nonresidential program, we were able to introduce youths to the wonders of working in the outdoors with the hope that they would be inspired to use their newfound skills locally, regionally or nationally. To sweeten the pot, we offered a fun activity like rock climbing or canoeing at the end of each day, as well as a weekly stipend. With five years of data behind us, we can proudly say that the Upper Valley High School Trail Corps program is having the intended impact. This past year alone, UVTA staff has served as a reference for nearly a dozen students applying for summer jobs as outdoor recreation program leaders, VYCC and Appalachian Mountain Club trail crew members and SCA summer interns in national parks. We have received many testimonials over the years, including this one from an Oxbow High School student: “There are few things that took place during my high school years that were more impactful than my time in the Upper Valley High School Trail Corps. It was not only my first real work experience but my first longer-term conservation and restoration service work. The trail corps taught me that I could make a positive difference on the landscape around me and how exactly to do that. It was incredibly rewarding to show up to a site with almost no work done on it and to see the finished product at the end of the day, something that I helped do. “It reinforced the value of putting in the time and getting things right, and the humbling and rewarding quality of working with your hands. By way of the experiences and lessons I’ve spoken of, I was able to foster my passion and love for nature into a passion for service, conservation and sustainability in the outdoors, which in turn motivated me to apply for the Student Conservation Association and continue the work I started all the way back when I was 17, right at the Upper Valley Trails Alliance.” This summer will be no different — and perhaps even better. Each summer, we hire a seasonal crew leader to manage the day-to-day operations of the summer crews, including organizing workdays and communicating with the crew. This year, we are thrilled that Hayden Keene, a Trail Corps alumus from 2016 and ’17, will be rejoining the program as our crew leader. Spring is upon us. The days are getting longer, the mud is getting deeper and we are excited to get out on the trails to inspire the next generation of recreation and conservation leaders.   Written by Russell Hirschler and published in the Valley News on March 31 2019.