Taking Volunteer Vacations

An outdoor gift that keeps on giving.
Montana volunteer vacation
Photography courtesy of Mike Pittsley

Maybe you have time on your hands, a burning desire to do something different for summer vacation and an urge to give something back. If so, maybe it’s time to consider a volunteer vacation.

Search Google for the phrase “volunteer vacations,” and you will find all sorts of exotic opportunities. Eco-tourism is big these days. With an organization like Earthwatch Institute (earthwatch.org), a well-respected environmental charity, you can pay to spend a week or two working alongside Ph.D. researchers who are studying oceans, archeology, climate change or wildlife and ecosystems.

This year, Earthwatch participants study endangered rhinos in South Africa, forest owls in Arizona and Utah, and penguins in Patagonia or, among other things, they can spend 11 days on a riverboat exploring a part of the Amazon basin, monitoring macaws, caimans and other creatures on the Samiria River in Peru.

Maybe a three-week jungle trek and studying sea turtles in Malaysia is preferred. That’s one of the 2018 trips offered by Goeco (goeco.org), while GoVoluntouring
(govoluntouring.com) is offering an 11-day trip to Nepal to study snow leopards.

While international trips are expensive, easily costing a thousand to several thousand dollars — money that helps fund the important research underway — there are numerous other possibilities closer to home that are less expensive, even trips in Michigan.

“We put a lot of time and effort into making sure volunteers have quality and fun experiences.”
— Libby Wile

Sierra Club service trips at parks and forests around the country typically cost several hundred dollars. The work may be physical and the lodging simple, but volunteers are being sought for a variety trail development and other projects including at Isle Royale National Park. See more about that at bit.ly/SierraClubIsleRoyale.

Michigan’s national forests and national wildlife refuges have a need for volunteers, too. Search volunteer.gov for its Michigan listings, and you find a call for campground hosts at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore or a volunteer interpreter at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. There are callouts for volunteer bird monitoring and other work at the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. The Michigan DNR also looks for volunteers as campground hosts or lighthouse keepers. Information about those listings is found at michigan.gov/dnr.

A favorite for dedicated hikers is the Volunteer Vacation program offered by the American Hiking Society (americanhiking.org), a national nonprofit in Maryland that partners with state and federal agencies and nonprofits around the country. It charges $245 or so per trip and has 52 projects on premier public lands around the U.S. this year.

Photography courtesy of
David J. Kennedy

“We average about 500 participants a year, from 18 to 80 years old,” said Libby Wile, senior director of programs for AHS. “We offer a variety of trips and difficulty levels and accommodations, so people can choose the right fit. Some of them are frontcountry (can drive to them), some are backcountry (hike to them) and some are urban. We put a lot of time and effort into making sure volunteers have quality and fun experiences.”

AHS was founded in 1976 with the mission of preserving U.S. hiking trails. It boasts of mobilizing more than a half-million volunteers, who facilitated 41,146 miles of trail construction and maintenance, saving state and federal agencies $108 million.

AHS Volunteer Vacation participants travel to their destinations however they choose at their own cost. Food and lodging on-site usually is provided by the agency. Participants then day hike or backpack to sites where they may repair, build or maintain trails, build bridges and do other stewardship work.

“We try to stress the importance of getting people outdoors and on public lands,” Wile said. “It has a lot of value for the people involved. Public lands also have a mounting backlog of building needs due to a lack of budgets. That’s why we rely on volunteers — to keep trails parks and forest open and safe for the public to use.”

Got the urge? These are just a few examples. Check out a volunteer vacation this summer that is right for you.

Howard Meyerson has been writing about the outdoors, nature and environment for more than 30 years. He is managing editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.

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