Tobey (front) and Mel (second) in Hells Canyon on a recent trail project

By Melanie Vining

I remember my friend Tobey calling me in the spring seven years ago, asking if she could stay at our house in Council on her way to a trail project. Of course I said yes- she was one of my oldest friends, and distance and busy lives made it hard to stay in touch. She showed up on a Saturday evening with a bottle of wine, and we sat down to catch up. I asked her about this “trail project”, knowing next to nothing about ITA at the time. She explained she would meet a group of other volunteers at the Vinegar Creek boat ramp on the Main Salmon River to be taken by jet boat to a beach where they’d base, camping out and doing trail work all week. What?! Sign me up! For me, at the time a Forest Service hydrologist, the seed was planted that night. Two years later I volunteered to lead an ITA youth trip, came home hooked, and when the Executive Director job opened up, I applied.

After Tobey’s introduction and encouragement, it was ITA special programs that played the biggest role in my introduction to the organization. Tobey piqued my interest with tales of reclaiming overgrown trails in remote places, but it was only after a friend who was scheduled to lead a 2019 youth trip in the Frank Church had to cancel and I was asked to take her place that leaving a secure government job to lead a small non-profit became my new goal, and much of that motivation came from watching my own child experience that week in the Frank.

The youth who made up “my” 2019 crew came from tiny Council and urban Boise; one of the Council youth was my oldest son, 14 at the time. The Council kids fancied themselves outdoorsmen, and they did have a fair amount of experience hiking and camping, but they’d not met the business end of a Pulaski or faced head high brush armed only with a set of loppers. The Boise group, for the most part, had not camped or hiked much, save a few. The first night at the trailhead our one camp area looked like two: Council kids over here, Boise kids over there. By night two of the trip, our backcountry camp along Big Creek again looked like two, but this time it was kids over here, adults over there. The youth were exhausted but high on the work and the shared new trail skills, laughing and playing games around a campfire. The beyond-exhausted but happy adults- three of us- were gathered far enough away we didn’t cramp their style, watching in awe at these new friends who’d thought they had nothing in common 48 hours ago now, bonded by sweat and cut logs and helping each other with everything from moving rocks to filtering water.

I came home with restored faith in the next generation, vowed to say, “kids these days” less, and called Jeff Halligan, one of ITA’s “OG’s” and the Executive Director at the time. I may or may not have jawed for the better part of an hour sharing tales of the week. We talked about the new youth program, the existing women’s program, and his dream of one day starting a program for veterans. The bulk of ITA’s volunteer projects were open to anyone, but these programs struck me as an important way to engage people who may want the brand-new experience of working trails to be with a group they shared a demographic with- as different as they may be in other ways. As a woman who’d come through the predominantly male world of wildland fire, I could appreciate the camaraderie that came from doing something new and challenging alongside other women, since those chances were rare. And as a recent witness to the common ground just being a teenager creates for kids from all walks of life, I now also understood the power of the youth program.

Three years into my tenure as ITA’s Executive Director, I still believe in our special programs; over the past few years we have built on the original youth and women’s programs, and we started a veteran’s program last summer. We’ve also expanded the definition of “special program” beyond demographics. We now reach out to people brand new to backpacking through our Backpacking 101 series, offering the chance for volunteers to learn, then try out their new backpacking skills with trail work on a weekend project. One admittedly selfish goal is to engage future members of our most challenging trips: multi day or weeklong backpacking trail projects. We’ve also partnered with the Forest Service and a community college to offer a job shadow opportunity for young horsemanship students to learn about mule packing in hopes of inspiring the next generation to seek jobs in this field. This program is in its early stages but we hope to grow it right along with our other programs.

Some of the best trips I have been on are ITA projects open to all; other best trips have been on special program projects. We love variety, and we love it when we hear from someone who writes after a trip and says, “I found my people” – which in trail speak means other hard-working humans who share a love of wild places and giving back. And bird songs at sunrise. And the sound of a crosscut in perfect rhythm. And the smell of coffee around a campfire. We believe our special programs are part of this recipe, of helping people find each other and connect over that soul-filling experience of hard work in beautiful places we all own.

Please help us continue to innovate and grow in our special programs through our 2024 Idaho Gives campaign. Your donations will fund tools, staff planning and support, food, gear, transportation and other items vital to offering awesome projects and bringing people together to preserve our public trails across the state.