“Best (volunteer) vacation ever!”  

By Michelle “Corporate” Nacouzi

This September, my boyfriend Andrew and I flew from New York City to Seattle to join a group of PCTA volunteers for a week of backcountry trail maintenance work in the Goat Rocks Wilderness. It was absolutely incredible! Andrew has a background building mountain bike trails in North Carolina and I am an adamant PCT section hiker, so when I saw a posting for PCTA’s Sasquatch Volunteer Vacation opportunity, it seemed like the perfect adventure for us both.

Andrew and I are all smiles after a hard day’s work.

I first saw the PCTA’s posting about this trip last spring, and immediately became intrigued; this was an opportunity to spend a week in some of my favorite mountains with other like-minded trail lovers, offering our time and muscle to help improve my favorite trail. All food was to be provided and I already owned all the camping gear required, so really, I only had the travel logistics to take care of. Hot diggity!

Planning for the trip was a little tricky. Andrew recently started a new job and had limited vacation days and I was mid-interviews for an important career move. We are both in our mid-to-late 20s and while we do not have dependents, taking the time and money to fly cross-country and be completely out of cell phone reach for a week was daunting. But we made it work through a combination of picking the Labor Day trip, working remotely on the travel days and setting clear expectations with our coworkers/interviewers. Andrew’s favorite memory from trip prep was responding to the PCTA’s volunteer survey asking us “How much food do you eat on a trip like this? Light, moderate, or heavy?” We both chose heavy.

I flew out first and spent two weeks camping with friends in the North Cascades and section hiking the PCT from Rainy Pass to Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass. Then Andrew flew out, and we each hitchhiked to a meeting spot then hitched together to White Pass. It took many hours and lots of rides, but I love the convenience of hitch hiking and the opportunity to meet the extended trail community. We camped at the trailhead that night, then met the PCTA crew leaders and fellow volunteers the next morning. As a group, we all hiked 8 miles to base camp while volunteer packers brought the food and tools via pack mules (so luxurious!).

Our tools and kitchen supplies being carried in by horses and mules. Thank you to all the pack mule volunteer groups who support the PCTA trips!

Truthfully, I started the trip being skeptical of my preparedness and ability to contribute much — I’m not particularly strong (note: I can hike/bike/run decently big miles but my lifting strength is limited to amateur rock climbing). I did not know much about using tools or building technical trail features and I showed up straight from the trail looking like hiker trash. However, an enthusiastic attitude and a little help from my (new) friends went a long way. First, there is plenty of trail work that, alongside the labor-heavy log clearing and boulder moving, requires more diligence than muscle (like uprooting small trees growing in the trail or collecting fist-sized rocks). Secondly, the PCTA crew leaders were very patient about showing us proper technique for identifying and executing trail maintenance tasks (generally, a small section of trail needs the same repeat work done along it, so you can easily get very good at that skill). And thirdly, please do not show up to any trail crew unprepared, but if you are like me and did not bring proper work shoes, your fellow volunteers might be able to step in (just call ahead and ask if you need help!).

Each day was perfect. We woke up at 6:30 a.m. to eat breakfast and pack lunch, did a group stretch circle and safety talk at 7:30 a.m., hiked out and started work by 8:30 a.m., had group snack/lunch breaks throughout the day, were back at camp by 3 p.m., and had the afternoon to ourselves before dinner at 6:30 p.m. Most afternoons, Andrew and I hiked the extra mile to a pristine alpine lake where we swam and sunbathed.

Our “private” pristine alpine lake (Shoe Lake), seen from above and at the shore.

However, on our half-day off we hiked 17 miles roundtrip so that I could show Andrew the Knife’s Edge, which he said was the “coolest hike ever!”

Andrew and I gallivanting through the breathtaking beauty of Goat Rocks on the way to Knife’s Edge.

We also had cooking and cleaning duty one evening, which was encouragingly fun and easy because the trail leaders had planned ahead so well.

Full-service kitchen! Andrew and I made bean soup with ground beef and quesadillas for dinner, which was enjoyed by all around the campfire.

And in-between it all, we had the most entertaining trail crew, where quippy jokes and endless stories colored every unfilled moment.

Nine of the 11 folks that we had the pleasure of volunteering with (Dylan, Paul, Mo, Matt, Justin, Pete, me, Andrew, and Julian. Not pictured: Ben and Duncan.)

Over the course of a week, our group of 11 maintained about 4 miles of trail and I learned how to do tread work (goodbye slough and berm!), clear the trail corridor (10 by 8 feet!), and build check dams (Andrew loved sawing logs and I loved gathering rocks). We worked hard but smart, ate colossal amounts of objectively great food, hung out with passing thru hikers, had panoramic views of Mount Rainier, and, most importantly, contributed to the benefit of a community and trail that has given me and my family so much.

Mo and trail leader Dylan doing the final touches on a check dam. Other volunteers are in the background digging ditches and bringing logs for more check dams.

I hope this story encourages some of you to volunteer with the PCTA, in whatever capacity you can. As more and more hikers visit the remote, breathtaking and fragile miles of the PCT every year, the need for us to keep it accessible and maintained increases as well. I cannot think of a single hiker friend who would not have loved the volunteer vacation experience I had, so to all my fellow out-of-towners and young folk: it was the best vacation I have ever taken!

Me, Corporate; I love hiking Washington in the sun (Grizzly Peak, looking at Glacier Peak) and in the freezing rain (Flycreek Pass).

Thank you to all the volunteers, crew leaders and partners who make the PCTA’s Volunteer Vacations a possibility, including the U.S. Forest Service. To get involved check out the Volunteer Vacations page or find upcoming volunteer opportunities on the project schedule.