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Found in Saba

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 Saba?” 

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 Restaurant.   

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.  What hospitality!

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.    

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