Four South Sounders find an outlet for their enthusiasm for the outdoors in volunteer work

Staff writerJune 1, 2014 

Kevin Bacher can imagine Mount Rainier National Park without volunteers, and it’s not a pretty picture.

“Visitor centers would have longer lines,” said the park’s volunteer program manager. “Trails would remain unrepaired, and many of those washed out in the 2006 flood would remain unreconstructed.

“Without Meadow Rovers to remind people to stay on trails, the beautiful wildflower meadows would be more trampled, and without citizen scientists, we would have a poorer understanding of the mountain’s ecosystems. Without volunteer climbing rangers and mountain rescue volunteers, many of our successful rescues would have turned out very differently. Almost every resource and every facility in our park is touched by volunteers and would be less without their help.”

Last year, volunteer work at Rainier was equivalent to hiring about 125 seasonal employees, Bacher said. Those are hires Mount Rainier and other parks don’t have the money to make in an era of perpetual budget trimming.

“Our park system, whether state, federal or local, could not be maintained without a core group of volunteers,” said John Walsh, a Lacey resident who volunteers at Mount Rainier.

Volunteers clean beaches and parks. They advocate for trails, parks and activities. They help with rescues and research. And they help educate visitors.

“There are so many places where people can volunteer,” said Ken Guza, a volunteer from Olympia. “And it’s very rewarding. … If you’ve got a passion, there’s a place to use it.”

Here’s a look at four South Sound residents who’ve found places to use their passions for the outdoors:

Dixie Gatchel

Foothills Rails to Trails Coalition

Ask many members of the Foothills Rails to Trails Coalition how many hours they volunteer, and they won’t give you an answer, says Dixie Gatchel.

Gatchel, the organization’s active transportation coordinator, dedicates much of her time to researching and advocating for the slowly expanding multiuse trail. The 90-year-old laughed when she heard the question.

“A lot of us are ashamed that if we said, people might think we don’t have a life,” Gatchel said. “But when you are passionate about something, you get carried away.”

For two decades, Gatchel and her husband, Clay, volunteered at Mount Rainier. When they retired, they found a new passion riding their bikes on the Foothills Trail. In 2002, long-time trail advocate Ernie Bay persuaded them to be on the trail’s courtesy patrol.

Clay died in an accident on the trail in 2005, and Gatchel no longer rides because her hip replacement is going bad. But she still passionately works with the coalition to maintain the trail and help it grow.

Her dream is to help the Foothills Trails complete links that will connect it to Buckley and the Sumner Link Trail. And for those trails to link to others to create a statewide trail network.

“People could leave their cars in the garage,” she said. “And I think it would be good for tourism. We’d be a destination.”

Slowly the dream is coming true. On March 31, a new section connecting the Foothills Trail to the Shaw Road Bridge was dedicated. And other projects are inching forward.

Part of Gatchel’s dream is to see these trails connected in her lifetime. “But they better hurry,” she joked. “I have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.”

Ken Guza and Diana Larsen-Mills

South Sound Estuary Association

The primary beneficiary of Ken Guza and Diana Larsen-Mills’ volunteer work is the South Sound Estuary Association, where both are board members and Larsen-Mills is the acting executive director.

But the retired couple has found many other ways to volunteer. They’ve worked for national parks, national seashores, the Sierra Club, the state Department of Natural Resources, the Mount Tahoma Trails Association, an Oregon antelope refuge and others.

“We enjoy getting involved and being outdoors,” Guza said. “There are so many opportunities to do that with everybody being short-staffed, it’s just a matter of exploring a little bit.”

Guza estimates they donate about 20 days per year, and they’ve been rewarded with several interesting experiences.

Once, when working in a wilderness area at Crater Lake National Park where power tools aren’t allowed, they used a crosscut saw to clear downed trees.

“You are tired at the end of the day, but it was fun to use the antique tools,” he said.

Guza urges outdoor lovers to pay attention to their surroundings and to be sensitive to the need for volunteers.

“A lot of people like doing things outside,” Guza said. “You can combine that with doing a public service.”

Eric Seemann

Friends of Capital Forest trail crew

For the past five years, on the first Saturday of each month, the Seemanns get in some quality father-son time on the trails of Capital State Forest.

They work on the trails, socialize with other volunteers, and then, if they still have enough energy, hop on their mountain bikes and go for a ride.

Matthew, 16, and Isaac, 20, always do, of course, but they have a running joke about whether their dad, Eric, will ride.

Seemann says volunteering with his boys — and sometimes his wife — is a rewarding experience.

“Exercising, socializing and stewardship,” he said.

He says volunteering with the Friends of Capital Forest has been a perfect opportunity for him to have fun with his sons while helping them learn about hard work and the importance of donating time.

“They really took to it,” Seemann said of his sons. “They work really hard.”

And he says they’ve really bought into the idea of giving back to what they really enjoy.

Seemann describes Friends of Capital Forest as a “fun, diverse group” that helps make dramatic improvements to a forest trying to distance itself from its reputation as a dumping ground.

“It really has come a long way,” said Seemann, recalling a day when the group removed seven queen-size mattresses and rescued an abandoned puppy. “But there’s always work to do, continual fine tuning.”

John Walsh

Mount Rainier Meadow Rover

John Walsh grew up in New England where he worked as a mountain guide and loved the outdoors. A Washington resident since the 1970s, he continues to explore his passion for the outdoors at Mount Rainier National Park.

During a hike in 2004, he met a couple wearing volunteer uniforms on the trail and started talking about their work. He was so intrigued he that he and his entire family signed up.

Walsh and his wife, Dorothy; daughter, Kelly; and son, Dan, became Meadow Rovers and it became common for them to volunteer 100 hours per summer.

As rovers, they roam the trails at Paradise and Sunrise interacting with visitors, answering questions, instructing people to stay on trails and assisting those who need help.

Walsh, 63, says volunteering has changed the way he views the outdoors. Instead of hiking briskly from Point A to Point B, he takes his times as he wanders the meadows.

“When you slow down, it gives you a deeper appreciation for what the park really is,” Walsh said. “It is such an asset.”

Whether it’s the scenery, the animals or meeting interesting people, Walsh says “every day provides some kind of gift.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497

Bellingham Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service