Trailblazers helps students give back, get dirty

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Each spring break since 2007, several dozen of Tech’s Trailblazers—including undergraduates, graduates and post-doctorates —combine outdoors exploration with environmental improvement via trips to national parks and local service projects.

The Trailblazers club offers their alternative spring break trips, local environmental service projects and convenient services for the “outdoorsy” student.

Their Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program is also offered by many similar organizations as an environmental service project and learning experience offers trips to national parks and trails throughout the country.

“They’re generally split half and half between outdoor activities and trail work—maintenance, invasive vegetation removal, installing check dams and water bars for erosion control,” Jason Murray, Trailblazers alternative breaks vice president, said, “Then we try to use whatever we’ve done as the service portion for outdoor activities. If we worked on a hiking trail we go backpacking, or if we work on a river or stream system we go canoeing or kayaking.”

This ASB will be a choice of two locations: the Smoky Mountains and the Pacific Crest Trail. The trip to Smoky Mountain National Park in Gatlinburg, Tennessee will focus on improving general erosion control and trail repair and then backpacking for several days.

The Pacific Crest Trail—near the San Diego portion of the Mexico-to-Canada mountain range—trip will include installing check dams and water bars and then backpacking for three days.

“The third [ASB trip] to the Mississippi Delta is still in the works, but we would work on paddling trails and do a two-day canoe trip,” Murray said, “The other two are open for signups online and are almost full, and Trailblazers members have priority registration for trips.”

The previous ASB trips have been to destinations like Shenandoah National Park, St. Marks Wildlife Refuge and Tucson National Park. Lodging is usually provided during the service half by the sponsoring organization or park association, but during the backpacking or canoe trips, they will pitch tents or sleep under the stars.

“[Trailblazers] tries to give people an idea of what goes into maintaining the outdoor facilities and how to have fun on it. So you’re going to see both sides of it,” Murray said.

Trips are often carpooled if within driving distance and cost from $125-$200. Some trips like to the Pacific Crest Trail may cost more to accommodate for a plane trip—usually $300-$600; however, this can be discounted if a member can find better transportation and can rendezvous with the rest of the group. Costs are reduced by SGA subsidies and sponsor packages, like lodging or food.

The club covers all necessary gear, food (catered to any dietary request), transportation and a t-shirt in the trip cost, but personal gear like backpacks, sleeping gear, and clothes are the individual’s responsibility. Pocket knives are also allowed and recommended.

Many more items are available for rent at the Outdoor Recreation at Georgia Tech’s (ORGT) Wilderness Outpost counter at the rear of the CRC.

“Trailblazers can rent anything from the Wilderness Outpost that they need for their travel,” Leigh Jackson-Megennis, assistant director of outdoor recreation, said, “We have historically given a discount rate to the Trailblazers if they were renting for the Spring Break trip.”

To check the list of gear and prices, see ORGT’s Wilderness Outpost website at http://www.crc.gatech.edu/orgt/wop.php. A weekend’s worth of basic gear costs about $25.

Toiling and hiking through the woods is not their only goal, however. Weekends are for local metro Atlanta environmental service projects, and they are open to all students and faculty willing to contribute their time—tools and work loves are provided.

One recent project was on Tech’s campus, working on erosion issues with paths students have created just by frequent use, called “social trails.”

Two more local projects are currently planned: a Boat Rock cleanup on March 6 and a second Tech social trail day on March 13. Previous projects have taken place at Autry Mill Nature Preserve, Sweetwater Creek and Allatoona Lake.

Though trips and local service projects do not require membership, the $25 annual dues cover some unique services an outdoor oriented student may appreciate. All of the Trailblazers’ gear—including stoves, first aid kits, cooking sets, water purifiers, stuff sacks, tents, lanterns, matches and fire starters—is available for free checkout to members for the weekend or entire week.

Murray suggests the Appalachian trail, Silver Comet (mountain biking), and Cloudman Canyon as spots within an hour or two from campus to visit.

Trailblazers is also considering an online map service for members to print free topographic maps.

Trail work and outdoor activities do require some skill to learn, but all necessary know-how, like how to light a stove, prepare a backpack, basic gear training and how to use and clean a water filter are taught days in advance of a trip.

Members are not expected to know anything before training and trips, though there are several former scouts with the club.

“People bike on the Appalachian Trail all the time, but to actually work on them, you get a much better idea of what it takes to actually maintain those facilities that so many people enjoy,” Murray said, “People think a trail just forms because people walk on it and wear away whatever is growing there. To some extent that’s true, but once that happens you get a lot of erosion in that area, it needs to be taken care of.”

Trips and service projects are also coordinated Tech service organizations—Omega Phi Alpha fraternity and Team Buzz, most recently—and with other universities like UGA and GSU.

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