By: Frank KP Chow, Toronto, Canada
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
I' ve gone on vacations where I carried my home
on my back, accompanied by like-minded friends, all in search of
the unique experience. These days, my back would rebel at
sleeping on the ground. However, I' m not quite ready for
the seniors' bus tours, the eight countries in six days variety.
And heading south to kick sand on a Florida beach has lost its appeal
after the umpteenth time. Now I have another choice.
In May 2004, when I answered the call for volunteers
to build a new side trail on the Bruce Trail and accepted Ross McLean'
s offer of a place to overnight in Cyprus Lake, I didn' t realize
that I would end up spending the middle two weeks of January 2005
on the island of Saba in the Dutch Antilles. There, I met
James and Imelda Johnson who were visiting Ontario for the first
time. Over the past 10 years, groups of hiking enthusiasts
from southern Ontario, ably assisted by a few Americans and under
the leadership of James Johnson, worked on the diverse, abandoned
trail system on the island. The Saba Conservation Foundation
had been formed to strive for the optimum balance between tourism
and environment sensitivity and to preserve and manage Saba's natural
and cultural heritage. I looked at the many photographs taken
by the Canadians on past trips to Saba and listened to retelling
of adventures and misadventures on and off the trails. These
people paid their own way to spend four hours every morning, Monday
to Friday, for two weeks to do trail maintenance work - on their
holidays! They loved it and were anxious to go back again.
Their enthusiasm was contagious. I don't remember what I said
that betrayed an interest on my part. Towards the end of the
evening, Imelda asked, "Well, Frank, when will you be coming
To my dismay, I learned that only three groups of
6 volunteers are accepted each year. The roster for year 2005
was completely filled, but I would be placed on the waiting list.
Luckily, I was able to leave on short notice and secured a
spot when Annie had to cancel.
The Saba Conservation Foundation had arranged for the six of us,
(Diane, Sally, Sandra, Doug, Bonnie and I), to stay at the Ecolodge,
a unique place. We were joined by Elan, a recent high school
graduate from El Monte, California who was volunteering on Saba
for a few months before entering university. We also met Bob
Moore, a retired geologist from Wyoming, USA. Bob and his
wife Sue escapes the winter months in Saba where Bob volunteers
his mornings working along side the Canadians.
On the first work day, we felt like archaeologists
when we dug away the mound of earth from a mud slide created by
Hurricane George to uncover stone steps on the Crispeen Track.
We worked on the Sulphur Mine Trail for two days, harvesting rocks
from the hillside to build a retaining wall. Continuing past
the mine entrance, we spent a day starting a new trail, which would
be finished by others, to end at the hot springs. We built
two “French drains on The Sandy Cruz Trail, assisted by Roger
King, an American from Massachusetts who vacations in Saba and volunteers
for trail work once in a while.
After a weekend of sleeping in, sight seeing, doing
laundry, snorkelling for some, hiking in St John's and souvenir
shopping; that is, no trail work, on Monday, we climbed up Mt. Scenery.
Where we meet James every day, we were already 1/3 of the way to
the top, but laden down with tools, it was still an arduous climb.
The Scenic Trail is one of several trails in the cloud forest leading
to lookouts that gave spectacular views of the sea, far below. We
need to re-open this trail which has been virtually reclaimed by
the vegetation. For the next two days, we worked on the Paris
Hill Trail located in the village call “The Bottom”.
Roger joined us and we benefited from his expertise with mixing
cement and pouring fence posts. We cleared the Flat
Point Trail, located near the airport. Our last work day was
at the Ecolodge. One group went with James and his chain saw
to trim back a few trees. The other group dug out the two
ruts created by the ATV used transport supplies for the Rainforest
If your idea of a winter holiday down south is sunning
on a sandy beach and sipping 'El Presidente', then volunteering
for trail maintenance on Saba may not be right for you. Even
working just a few hours each morning, the heat and humidity make
it challenging for those who are not used to doing physical labour
outdoors. Expertise is not a pre-requisite; enthusiasm is.
Your reward is not the free housing in exchange for working on the
trails. It is knowing that you make a difference and being
openly appreciated by the residents as “"The Canadian
Volunteers". Meeting Judy who owns the Peanut Gallery
in Windwardside is typical of the encounters. On our first
meeting, she offered me the use of her clothes dryer at home to
take the dampness out of my laundered clothes when I mentioned that
the humidity was making it hard to dry even 'quick dry' clothes.
I spent my free Saturday afternoon enjoying sunshine
and no humidity, following a walking tour of Winwardside designed
by Tom van't Hof and Heleen Cornet, (the same Tom and Heleen of
the Ecolodge). The architecture and variety of flowers gave
my new digital camera a thorough work out. There are three
other walking tours which I wasn't able to do on this trip.
I may have worked on pieces of several trails, (and there are many
more that I haven't been on), I certainly would like to hike these
trails some day - not just work on them.
Volunteering on Saba was a good find.