Volunteer Feature: Susan Tracy finds her place in PCTA’s Mt. Hood Chapter

With input from Susan Tracy and Susan McDonnell

The Eagle Creek fire of September 2017 changed the face of the Columbia River Gorge and its trails for generations to come. But it also changed the face of local trail volunteer organizations —for the better. Trail organizations including PCTA’s Mt. Hood Chapter blossomed under the influx of new volunteers who wanted to make a difference by bringing back the network of trails that make the Gorge, just east of the Portland metro area at the border of Oregon and Washington, an enormously popular destination for locals and visitors alike.

headshot of Susan Tracy

We are deeply grateful for Susan’s dedication to the Pacific Crest Trail. Thank you Susan!

One volunteer who stepped forward to help with trail recovery efforts in the Eagle Creek Burn Area was Susan Tracy. “In September 2017 I sat in Stevenson, Washington and watched in horror as the Eagle Creek Fire scorched the PCT and most hiking and running trails on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge.”

“I was inspired to be one of the people who would help fix all the damage.”

Susan began to sign up for every volunteer trail crew she could get on. “I took classes, I read online resources, I was hooked.” She learned to clear landslides and debris, cut logs, move rocks, reshape damaged tread. She learned how to backpack while working on the farther reaches of the Eagle Creek Trail, a PCT alternate through the Columbia River Gorge.

Susan uses a crosscut saw

Susan works with another volunteer to finish a cut using a crosscut saw.

As she continued her volunteering journey, Susan learned how to lead others, how to work with land managers, and how to use a Forest Service radio to communicate while out on the trail. She forged new friendships through the community-building that comes with working together to bring the trail back from the ashes. Today, Susan is a crew leader and the caretaker of one of her favorite sections in the Gorge, the Benson Plateau. She is thriving in her new role, and in her new community of PCT trail maintainers. She has found a place where she belongs.

Susan is empowered to chart her own course with her volunteer work and feels that anyone who wants to get involved can contribute in a meaningful way, whether through the physically intense work of clearing rockslides and removing large logs, by educating trail users as a trailhead host, or any number of other ways that volunteers can get involved. But she did have moments of doubt along the way.

“There’s pretty low representation of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] and LGBTQIA+ people on crews, and that can be intimidating or not feel welcoming. As a queer trans person, I was frustrated in the past with micro-aggressions and lack of a clear commitment by the PCTA to support equity, diversity, and inclusiveness. I nearly left, but I’m glad I didn’t. I had some great conversations with PCTA leadership and fellow volunteer Caretakers.”

Susan uses a chainsaw

Susan uses a chainsaw during a Chainsaw Certification event in April. Photo courtesy of David Cady

Part of the key to her success has been the willingness of others to embrace diversity and accept her as she is. Bill Canavan, one of her volunteer crew leaders, suggested she pursue being a crew leader herself.  She spent countless hours working on the Eagle Creek Trail with Susan McDonnell, her crew leader development mentor, as she honed her trail work skills and her crew leadership skills. Susan M welcomed her on crews, taught her new skills, gave her opportunities to lead small groups, and encouraged her to grow and stretch her wings leading crews on the trail herself.

Susan Tracy loves helping others, both on the trail and off, and spends her days working for Meals on Wheels to help prevent food insecurity among senior citizens. Trail work is just one more way she expresses her passion for giving back.

“Helping new volunteers make their own contributions is my favorite part.”

Susan’s goal is to make sure that any volunteer who joins one of her projects feels appreciated for their time and effort, and that they come out of a day of trail work feeling as though they have made a difference.  She prioritizes creating a respectful, safe, and welcoming experience for all.

Susan hikes on a trail with a large backpack and waterfalls in the background

The Eagle Creek Trail would not be the same without Susan’s work, along with all of the volunteers she works alongside! Thank you volunteers, and thank you Susan!

Susan is confident in her future as a crew leader and eager to begin recruiting new volunteers. She is now the one teaching trail skills, including treadwork courses at the Columbia Cascades Trail Skills College on April 29th–May 1st, and hopes to host trail work opportunities catered towards the LGBTQIA+ community in the future.

“Five years ago, I was the new student,” reflects Susan. “I’m so grateful for the support I’ve received along the way, and for the experiences that literally changed my direction in life. I want to thank all the Crew Leaders and Caretakers in PCTA’s Mount Hood Chapter for their support, sharing their skills and knowledge, and for their love. I especially want to thank my mentor, Susan McDonnell, the Eagle Creek Trail Caretaker, for investing her time helping me, and convincing me to stay. The trail provides, but my journey wouldn’t have been possible without these people.”

Volunteer your passion for the PCT. Be outdoors. Play in the dirt. Sleep under the stars.

Author: Hazel Platt

Hazel Platt is PCTA's Volunteer Engagement Associate, working to support the PCTA volunteer community and connect prospective volunteers with opportunities to get involved. Hazel is a self-proclaimed nature nerd, and loves long-distance hiking.