Volunteers tackled uncertainty in the time of Covid-19

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of our Communicator magazine.

Susan McDonnell leads her crew through a physically distanced “tailgate safety session” before heading out on the trail.

The COVID-19 pandemic challenged most of us in various ways. For some, working from home became the new normal. We wore masks to curb the spread and ordered take-out instead of dining at restaurants. But others lost their jobs, their homes and many lost their lives. It’s safe to say that 2020 was a year unlike any other and we couldn’t wait to put it behind us.

In the PCT community, hikers postponed their trips or changed their plans. PCTA staff worked from home, in-person events were canceled and many volunteer projects were delayed.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the PCT, and despite the pandemic, PCTA volunteers were able to get out in limited fashion and tend to the upkeep that is crucial to the trail experience. Still, because of the unforeseen nature of the season, most trail maintenance projects were paused.

Without regular upkeep, minor tread and erosion issues quickly turn into significant damage. Brush left to Mother Nature’s growth can seemingly swallow the trail. In a normal season, volunteers would be keeping up with those maintenance demands, planning for future seasons, hosting training and tabling events and much more. Unfortunately, 2020 was anything but normal.

In the months following the start of the pandemic, the PCTA’s Trail Operations and Volunteer Program staff created safety guidelines to help mitigate the risk of volunteers being exposed to the virus during trail maintenance activities. We reduced group sizes, suspended overnight projects and provided volunteers who went out on day projects with additional personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and hand sanitizer. These safety measures allowed for some work to be completed on the PCT—and in a year with few victories, we were glad to celebrate small ones.

Susan McDonnell, a crew leader with the PCTA’s Mount Hood Chapter, was grateful to be a part of the 2020 volunteer experience. She said it was a unique opportunity to bond and form deeper friendships. The PCTA’s Mount Hood Chapter is one of our largest community-based volunteer groups, so having small, intimate work parties doesn’t happen very often. In a year where many were isolated, these small groups of volunteers enjoyed every second of socially-distanced together time they could, and they got a lot of great work done in the process.

Although it seemed overwhelming at first, Susan said she and her crew adjusted to the new safety protocols—and once they got the hang of it, it was easier to work with a crew that was all on the same page and following the same set of guidelines. For Susan, like most of us in the PCT community, being outside means being in her happy place. Surrounded by dirt and trees, soaking up all the healing properties that nature has offer, she was able to stay connected and happy.

Betty Applebaker packing in supplies for a 2020 season project.

Betty Applebaker, a former U.S. Forest Service employee turned volunteer after retirement, currently volunteers in Southern Oregon with The High Desert Trail Riders Back Country Horsemen Chapter and the PCTA. Betty was glad to be able to get out this year without a lot of changes to her normal activities. Horse packing doesn’t involve much contact with other volunteers, and with fewer trail users out in her area, it was almost easier to get supplies to backcountry crews. Without Betty and other packers, a lot of the work that happens in the backcountry wouldn’t be possible. In the Sky Lakes Wilderness, the American Conservation Experience crew relied on Betty and her small team to pack in tools, camp supplies and food for their 2020 season projects.

Anthony Benedetti, a U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Technician for the Fremont-Winema National Forest, said he couldn’t have completed the maintenance season without the help of packers like Betty and other PCTA volunteers. Betty feels lucky that she was still able to get out and volunteer even though so much else had changed, she hopes to continue supporting the U.S. Forest Service and PCTA crews in upcoming seasons. Being able to continue growing these important partnerships, even during a pandemic, is vital to the work that goes into protecting and preserving the PCT. Without our many partnerships, this work wouldn’t be possible. As Anthony said, having good partnerships makes it a lot easier when times get tough. And 2020 was tough.

Deanna Salazar’s interacting with hikers before Covid-19 cut the 2020 trailhead host season short.

Deanna Salazar, one of the 2020 PCT Trailhead Hosts, started in late February at the Southern Terminus with high hopes for a great season of greeting hikers and collecting and sharing important information, like Leave No Trace practices. Unfortunately, just a few weeks later, she fought back tears as her USDA Forest Service supervisor, Lindsey Steinwachs (who was recently appointed as the new PCT Administrator), let her know her time would be cut short. Like most of us, she thought it was temporary and waited for a call from Lindsey saying she could head back to her post. When that didn’t happen, she and her husband packed up their travel van and hit the road, staying in dispersed camping areas where forests were open over the summer.

She spent time reflecting on her 2018 PCT thru-hike, yearning for that PCT connection she was supposed to have had as a trailhead host. While reading her journal entries, she was struck by her thru-hike mantra—expect the unexpected—a reminder that things don’t always work out the way they’re planned, and that’s OK. Deanna often thinks about the people she met during her short time at the PCT’s Southern Terminus and wishes she could hear their stories and know what they are up to now. Deanna and Steve worked a full season in 2021 as trailhead hosts and finished what they began last year..

Ron Krueper smiles for the camera at a pre-pandemic scouting trip with members of the Tejon Ranch PCT Relocation team.

Ron Krueper, a volunteer on the PCTA’s Tejon Ranch PCT Relocation working group, had to make some adjustments when their work became virtual. The team of volunteers, staff and agency partners is creating a protected PCT reroute through Tejon Ranch in Southern California. Meeting virtually can slow things down a bit, and it’s not always as effective as face-to-face meetings, but Ron is looking forward to the work yet to come. Even though he wasn’t able to experience the PCT like he normally would, he continues to support the efforts in hopes that one day he can hike the new section of trail that will run through Tejon Ranch’s wild expanse. Ron’s passion for the trail comes from his long career with California State Parks and the endless inspiration from his mom, Alice Krueper, a legendary PCTA volunteer.

Volunteers both on and off the trail felt the effects of 2020. The PCTA’s main office in Sacramento closed its doors as staff began working from home. Our dedicated office volunteers went home, too, and remote volunteer opportunities were severely limited in the first few months. But volunteers were flexible when projects were available, traveling to pick up supplies and taking things home to support staff in larger tasks, always ready for the challenge.

Volunteers along the trail also appreciated the PCTA’s new training courses adapted for online learning. It gave some the opportunity to learn new skills or brush up on those they hadn’t used in a while. Making these courses available online also benefited those who aren’t normally able to attend in-person events, like Trail Skills College, and gave them the opportunity to do so from the comfort of their homes.

In a year unlike any other, most of us were tired and ready to get back to normal. Volunteers waited patiently and were flexible when almost everything was difficult. The PCTA is thankful for all of their work despite the incredible challenges. Volunteers continue to be vital to ensuring the preservation of the PCT for future generations and for all outdoor enthusiasts.

Visit our website – www.pcta.org/volunteer/ – to learn more about volunteer opportunities and to get involved in your area.

Author: Mila Benson

Mila Benson was the PCTA's Volunteer Programs Outreach Associate in 2020 but has since moved on to other opportunities. She's enthusiastic about stories that engage and inspire others to volunteer and view the trail through a new lens. Originally from North Idaho, Mila is passionate about all things outdoors and spends her free time exploring California.