On the Trails: H.S. Trail Corps an Exercise in Inspiration

  • UVTA executive director Russell Hirscheler, left, and members of the Upper Valley High School Trail Corps perform work near the Montshire Museum in Norwich this summer.

Special to the Valley News
Sunday, September 10, 2017

With autumn approaching, I look forward to the cool, frosty mornings, but I feel somewhat saddened that one of my favorite Upper Valley Trails Alliance programs, the Upper Valley High School Trail Corps, is over for 2017.

Over the last several months, I had the great pleasure of working with 43 high school students from across the Upper Valley and beyond to build, improve and maintain a variety of recreational trails in the region as part of the program. This year’s Trail Corps members represented 15 different high schools, with participants ranging from rising freshman to graduating seniors.

For UVTA staff, the program actually begins the previous fall when we work to raise funds to cover program expenses, including a small daily stipend for each participant.

We continue our Trail Corps work in January with recruitment outreach to local schools, speaking with teachers, guidance counselors, principals and club leaders to spread the word about the program.

Often described as “a first job meets summer camp,” the program requires students to fill out an online application, list references and job history, and write a short personal statement. Applications are reviewed, references are checked and students are offered a spot in one of four weeks they have chosen during the application process.

Before the program begins, students are also required to attend an orientation session to be sure they are ready to invest themselves in the experience. At the same time, we are reaching out to partner organizations to identify important and interesting summer trail projects. We also plan for nearby fun summer activities, such as boating and swimming, to ensure there is a reward for hard work at the end of every day.

Work locations this summer included the King Arthur and Ballard trails in Norwich, a new trail on Wright’s Mountain in Bradford, Vt., the Cross Rivendell Trail in Orford, Faulkner Park in Woodstock, Cole Pond Trail in Enfield and the Balch Hill trails in Hanover.

Finishing its fifth year, the program has now brought together hundreds of students for a unique opportunity to give back to their local community. Crew members engage in trail-building activities that involve teamwork and problem-solving, and the impact of the program goes far beyond the trail work itself.

The students sign up for a unique opportunity to work with a new and diverse group of people, and that is one of the reasons the Trail Corps experience is so special. For me, watching a group of virtual strangers grow together as a team, tell jokes, play games, find common interests and battle sore muscles, rain, heat and bugs to complete a task brings a huge smile to my face.

It reminds me of the formative outdoor experiences that helped shape my future and career — and that is where much of the beauty lies.

While it can be difficult to measure the tangible impact of the program, we know Trail Corps is successful. One testament to its success is that each year we have returning students, including 15 for either their second or third year in the program this summer.

It is amazing to witness their growth and maturity from one year to the next. In addition, participants have used the Trail Corps experience as a springboard to other outdoor jobs (I have been a reference countless times), join other trail crews (including the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps and Appalachian Mountain Club), and even write about it in their college entrance essays.

As second-year participant Hayden Keene, of Enfield and Kearsarge Regional High, told us: “I love hiking, and Trail Corps is the perfect opportunity for me to do what I enjoy while helping the community and meeting other local students who are passionate about what I love.

“Trail corps provides an immense sense of accomplishment created by completing difficult projects as a team, such as building a bridge or setting a rock step. I just finished my third week of trail crew with UVTA, and I would highly recommend the program to a friend because of the unique blend of fun and work experience trail crew offers to participants.”

In many ways, the Trail Corps experience makes me optimistic about the future. Working with these wonderful high school students from across the region and beyond brings me joy. At the end of an especially grueling Trail Corps workday, my 8-year-old daughter, Ariella, said to me, “Daddy, I hope you still do the Trail Corps program when I am in high school so I can do it with you.”

Who can ask for anything more than that?

Russell Hirschler is executive director of the Upper Valley Trails Alliance. Learn more at www.uvtrails.org.