Youth Outside | On the Road: How our youth van helped us navigate COVID-19

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, a van purchased last year for our youth programs saves the day, making it possible for kids to attend summer camp, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Andy Bassett Andy Bassett
Associate Director of Education & Curriculum
May 22, 2021
Youth Outside | On the Road: How our youth van helped us navigate COVID-19

A little over a year ago, a colleague and I ventured about an hour north of Seattle to the little seaside town of Anacortes. Although tempted by views of nearby Mount Erie State Park, we were on our way to pick up the newest addition to The Mountaineers: a 15-passenger van. The vehicle was fated to take Mountaineers youth to the lakes, trails, and mountains surrounding Puget Sound.

For the past 10 years, we have been fortunate to see our youth programs grow into multiple opportunities to get kids out and enjoying those places we hold so dear. From day camps to after-school programs to multi-day field trips, I get excited each year as we find new ways to get kids outdoors and away from their computer screens. And although as staff we can spend as much time as we like packing food, checking gear, and looking up weather conditions, at the end of the day these things don’t matter if we can’t get our kids to the trailhead.

Transportation many times ends up being the hidden barrier to getting outdoors. Recognizing this issue, in the summer of 2019 we set a goal of raising $30,000 to purchase a 15-passenger van. The purpose of this was twofold: to provide transportation options for youth and their families, and to minimize the financial, environmental, and trailhead impacts of multiple vehicles. Thanks to 34 unique donors, by the end of the summer we had secured funding to purchase a van.

In the first few months of 2020, our van was booked nearly every weekend to transport kids to cross country ski trips, day hikes near Snoqualmie Pass, and snowshoe days at Paradise. We even used it to transport gear from our Gear Lending Library to other branches. However, the van found its true place as we approached another hidden barrier: running youth programs in the midst of COVID-19. Sarah Holt, our Tacoma Program Manager, reflects on this past summer:

A camp conundrum

It’s late June, and like many of us, I’m obsessing over the news. I’m tracking COVID-19 case counts in Pierce County, hospital capacity, and every metric we have to hit to transition out of Phase 2. Using traditional programming, we would need to be in Phase 3 for our summer camps to be permitted under the new state regulations, and things weren’t looking good. But when it came time to hit that “Cancel Course” button, I just couldn’t do it. There had to be another way to make this work.

One of our most beloved summer camp offerings, our Rainier Overnight Week consists of up to 20 kids, four or five staff, and two to three parent drivers. We set up camp on the Irish Cabin Property on the Carbon River, less than a mile from the park entrance, and go on daily hikes and adventures around Mowich Lake, the Carbon River, and Summit Lake. With miles of rugged gravel road, we rely heavily on staff and chaperones with high-clearance vehicles and SUVs.

But now, with a group size limit of eight households, we only had room for two staff and six households of kids at a time. We came up with a compromise - everyone gets a half week of camp. Group 1 got to enjoy Monday through Wednesday, while Group 2 would camp Wednesday through Friday. Great care was taken to make sure the two groups could never cross paths. But with only two of my staff able to drive and facing social distancing requirements, how could we make that work?

A solution presents itself

We soon realized that the flexibility and size of the van was the key to making summer camp a reality. Trying to plan who went in which group was a jigsaw puzzle of pods, siblings, parent drivers, vehicle capacity, and more. We spent the week before camp scrambling to get everyone scheduled into a group and to make sure we had everything we needed to run camp safely. We had individual tents, extra hand-washing stations, extra masks, and so, so much hand sanitizer.

2020 had taught me not to be too optimistic, but it seemed like camp might actually happen. Of course, fate (or road conditions) wasn’t done with us yet. The road to Mowich Lake was still gated six miles from the lake, and the section that was open, was... rough.

“The people in the very back of the van - honestly everyone in the van – were getting completely tossed around on the insanely bumpy, pothole-filled backroads,” remembers camp counselor Abby Orgish. “They would bounce so high they would hit their heads on the ceiling of the van! Fortunately, it brought lots of giggling.” We also discovered that the van was a champ on rough roads. We came up on two Jeeps who were going slower than we were!

Campers crossing a creek near Mowich Lake. Photo by Lauren Ashbaugh.

Sunny days at Mowich Lake

With the road gated we sought out new hikes and adventures, taking Paul Peak Trail to the Mowich River and Grindstone Trail to Mowich Lake. I thought there would be some disappointment that we didn’t get to visit our usual, more epic destinations of Spray Park and Tolmie Peak Lookout, but as I’m reminded every year, if there’s water around kids know how to have fun. At Mowich Lake kids searched for frogs and newts and practiced boot skiing through the snow. Down at the shores of the Mowich River, they dared each other to see how long they could stand in the fresh glacial melt off and practiced balancing and doing yoga on the logs. We played long games of “20 Questions” and “Contact” to get back up the many switchbacks.

So far so good, but we knew camp could get shut down at any time. “Let’s just get through this week,” we would say. “Let’s just keep doing what we can until they tell us to stop.” “Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty” became my daily mantra. Every day I dreaded getting that contact tracing phone call - but it never came. Use of the van allowed us to split our day camps into two or sometimes three groups and use different locations - cycling through the Tacoma Mountaineers Program Center, Point Defiance, and Exit 38. When all was said and done five weeks later, the van had completed eight trips to Exit 38, two trips up Summit Lake Road, five trips up Mowich Lake Road, and four trips out to the Irish Cabin and back. In a summer of trying to accomplish what seemed impossible, the van was our lifeline. And in the midst of a global pandemic, our kids got to experience not just a bit of normalcy and human interaction, but the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and the memories that make summer camp magical. We all needed each other, and the outdoors, more than ever.

After a full summer of adventures with Tacoma campers, our van is currently facilitating after-school programs in Olympia. When we first set out to buy a van, we had visions of how it would ease transportation concerns for the families we serve. But as the year ticked along, we realized that it provided the flexibility we needed to successfully navigate COVID-19 and get our kids outside. Thanks to the cooperation of our campers, their parents, and our champ of a van, Tacoma Mountaineers youth had the chance to experience the delight of the outdoors during a most unusual summer.

The youth van was made possible through the generosity of our Mountaineers community, with elevated support from the Bradley Family Foundation, the Gary E. Milgard Family Foundation, and donors Ken Seamon and Jane Biddle.

This article originally appeared in our Spring 2021 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

LEAD IMAGE OF The youth van at our Seattle Program Center.

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