Most weekends during the spring and summer, you’ll find Jane Baker forging, reinforcing or navigating a trail somewhere in the Washington wilderness.
As a crew leader with the Washington Trails Association, Baker leads volunteer groups as part of a mission to promote and preserve hiking trails and outdoor areas throughout Eastern Washington. Last year the local branch of the WTA contributed 2,879 volunteer hours through two dozen refurbishing efforts from April through October.
“As a volunteer you can feel good about what you’re accomplishing,” Baker said. “There’s a sense of pride.”
A typical WTA volunteer day starts at 8:30 in the morning and wraps up around 2:30 in the afternoon. WTA provides the training and equipment, from shovels to grip hoists to crosscut saws, while volunteers are required to wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, hardhats and gloves. Baker – who scouts out the work site beforehand and serves as a project coordinator – said the average agenda generally involves tasks like building new trails, retreading the surface of existing trails, constructing bridges, adding steps or reinforcing a rock wall.
While some of the projects can be rigorous, Baker emphasizes that volunteers work at their own pace and “don’t have to worry about how much they get accomplished while they’re there.”
“This shouldn’t be grueling,” Baker said. “We say, ‘Be safe, have fun and get some work done.’”
You won’t find WTA work crews sites like Mirabeau Point Park or other suburban greenspaces, Baker said. The group sticks mostly to outlying areas like the Colville National Forest, Iller Creek, Gibraltar Mountain in Republic and Hall Mountain along the Selkirk Range in Northeast Washington. Last month, WTA spent a Saturday reinforcing trails at Liberty Lake County Park.
“It’s been identified as an area that needs a lot of work to get up to a good standard,” Baker said of the Liberty Lake acreage.
Baker began helping with WTA on the west side of the state seven years ago after discovering the agency as a volunteer with the Sierra Club. At the time, WTA did not have a presence in Eastern Washington, an oversight that Baker brought to the group’s attention.
“I told them, ‘You call yourself the Washington Trails Association but you’re not covering the entire state of Washington,’” Baker said.
Jeff Lambert, vice president of the Dishman Hills Natural Area Association, also helped establish the groundwork for WTA’s emergence east of the Cascades. He said the group has earned respect “by establishing a culture of building and maintaining trails properly in a way that minimizes the adverse affects on the existing environment.”
Baker rose to the station of assistant crew leader and was eventually asked by WTA officials to launch an Eastern Washington branch as the area’s first crew leader three years ago. She is now supported by five assistant crew leaders and a collection of around 150 volunteers. Statewide, WTA boasts approximately 2,500 volunteers.
“Being a crew leader is a lot about problem solving,” said Baker, who donated 55 days of her time to the cause last year. “You need to have trail skills, people skills and leadership.”
Along with daylong work excursions, WTA sponsors weeklong camps during the summer in which volunteers spend five days working on the surrounding trails and one “free day” hiking through the area. The $195 cost covers meals.
Baker, who is trained in First Aid and CPR, said safety remains at the forefront at every WTA site. Each project begins with an outline of proper procedures and those who arrive late cannot work that day.
“As a crew leader, I have to make sure people know what they’re doing,” Baker said.
WTA has work events scheduled through July 21 at Liberty Lake County Park and Mt. Spokane. More information is available at www.wta.org. Across Washington, WTA hosts more than 700 projects each year, totaling some 100,000 hours of volunteer work.
In addition to the impact on area trail and wilderness areas, Baker said the experience of being in the outdoors “grounds you as to what’s really important in life.”
”There’s something healing about it,” she said. “You feel humbled, like you’re a guest. For me, it’s a real privelage.”