Have you ever been hiking along a trail and found yourself thinking: “Wow, what a great trail! Not too steep, no branches in my face, easy to navigate, not too many mud puddles…”?
Or, if you’re like most of us before we started trail work, those thoughts never crossed your mind–because you were on a well-maintained trail, and you were too busy soaking up the spectacular views instead.
Trail quality is one of those things that is much more noticeable when done wrong, rather than done right. That’s why we work hard to ensure that hikers can focus on the joys of their journey, rather than worrying about balancing on an extremely narrow path on a mountainside or ducking under tree branches blocking their way.
And none of that would be possible without TCT volunteers. Volunteers are an essential part of the TCT network, and without their hard work and dedication, the trails would look extremely different.
This year, we were thrilled to expand our volunteer opportunities – getting a lot of work done on the trails while also introducing more people to the joys of working in the wilderness. Our Caucasus Conservation Corps (CCC) program conducted multiple volunteer camps in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan that were geared towards local young adults interested in environmentalism, conservation, and trail building. TCT Georgia also hosted international volunteers from outside the region who traveled to Georgia to contribute their time and skills and learn about Georgian culture.
Over the course of the 2023 season, almost 200 volunteers spent up to 10 days camping and living in nature while constructing and maintaining the trails, forming lasting friendships, and exploring the Caucasus. They made a huge impact, and we are so grateful for their hard work and great spirits!
Continue reading below to learn more about the impact of our volunteer programs in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia!
Volunteers Improve a Historic Trail
In August, TCT Azerbaijan hosted its very first 10-day volunteer trail building camp to improve the historical Eh Route connecting the villages of Grizdahna and Griz on the Guba-Gusar section of the TCT in northern Azerbaijan. Despite Griz’s allure as a remote, ancient village whose inhabitants speak their own unique language, the steep, heavily eroded trail discouraged many hikers from visiting the village. We chose this section of the TCT for our first trail building camp, since we knew trail improvements would benefit both hikers and village inhabitants.
After crew leader training in Georgia, three Azerbaijani crew leaders applied their technical knowledge and leadership skills as they completed their training in Azerbaijan and then led local volunteers during a 10-day trail building project. Despite an unusual amount of rain, the team kept their spirits high and made significant improvements on the trail.
Because more than 2km of the 8km trail was extremely steep and difficult for hikers, Georgian crew leader trainer Giorgi Jmukhadze and TCT Azerbaijan staff decided that a new 200-meter section of trail was required to adequately improve the overall trail. The crew enthusiastically took on this challenge, and by the end of the volunteer camp, they had created not only 200, but 350 meters of new trail!
While 350 meters might not sound like a whole lot, imagine clearing an area more than 3 football fields long of dense shrubbery and then scraping and leveling the earth to create a trail that will last. The crew also constructed switchbacks to reduce the steepness and make the trail more accessible, and improved the existing trail by brushing and removing potential hazards such as stones and broken trees. The small crew accomplished quite a lot in such a short time!
Hikers and tour groups quickly began taking advantage of the trail improvements and have been using this historic trail much more frequently since the work was completed. National Geographic photographer Matthieu Paley also happened to be visiting Azerbaijan at the time, and didn’t miss a chance to visit and photograph the volunteer camp and trail work (stay tuned for the forthcoming story).
Cultural Exchanges on the Trails in Svaneti
Georgia hosted two separate programs this season: a Caucasus Conservation Corps program for local Georgian volunteers, and an international volunteer program for foreigners. The programs were located in different parts of Svaneti, in northern Georgia, and successfully (re)introduced enthusiastic nature lovers to the region and the joys of building and maintaining a trail.
Local Crews in Zeskho
Beautiful surroundings and amazing people created an ideal atmosphere. – 2023 volunteer in Zeskho, Georgia
The CCC program returned to the remote valley of Zeskho this year, and volunteers continued constructing a new trail connecting the Svaneti and Racha sections of the TCT. Located within the border zone, Zeskho is famous within the TCT community for its rugged beauty and lack of cell phone coverage, giving trail crew members a unique opportunity to work and build friendships without distractions from the outside world. Several participants were returning volunteers from previous years, eager to contribute again to the project.
Volunteers have been working in Zeskho since 2018 and perhaps have the greatest challenge of all the TCT projects: building a brand new trail. It’s a lot more work than it seems, but they make it look easy! A total of 43 volunteers made their way to Zeskho this season, and spent their days removing vegetation, benching, and constructing the trail to prevent erosion and rainwater pooling. At the end of the day, they returned to their field camp and enjoyed telling stories around the campfire, friendly visits from the border guards, and watching the brilliance of the stars.
As part of this year’s CCC international exchange program, six Armenian trail crew leaders spent a week volunteering in Zeskho in August, building the new trail and sharing their knowledge of trail building techniques with the Georgian volunteers and crew leaders. The exchange was incredibly valuable to both Georgian and Armenian participants, and everyone made new friends through collaboration and fun conversations, practiced and improved their English language skills, learned new trail building skills, and taught each other about their own language and culture.
Thanks to this exchange program, we made great hiking friends and got to know each other’s culture and language more closely. One of the most significant things was that we got to know the work of the trails being built in Georgia. It provided us with an excellent opportunity to develop and exchange our professional skills. During these interesting 10 days, we also managed to taste the national dishes, explore the picturesque landscapes while hiking, and enjoy the wonderful nature of Zeskho. We have a strong passion for gaining international experience in trail construction, and we feel truly appreciative for the chance to be involved and learn from it.
– Irina Sindoyan, 2023 Armenian exchange participant
International Volunteer Program
Throughout July and August, 48 international volunteers from 16 countries traveled to Mestia, Georgia to improve the Upper Svaneti section of the TCT and the Mt. Kva side trail, which provides a higher, alternate route between the villages of Nakra and Kichkhuldashi. The combination of local crew leaders and both local and foreign volunteers provided an excellent opportunity for cultural exchange among the participants, many of whom were visiting Georgia for the first time.
Most of the crews were based in Kichkhuldashi, a tiny village of two year-round inhabitants, Valeri and Maro Vibiliani. Volunteers were able to interact with local Georgians and enjoy the beauty of the Caucasus during their free time, and the Viblianis’ generous gifts of delicious homemade cheese and fresh fruit were a welcome addition to the typical camp fare.
Volunteers made many improvements to the two trails, including:
- Clearing the trail of encroaching vegetation
- Constructing new drainage paths to prevent water from collecting on the trail
- Maintaining and cleaning existing drainage paths
- Building steps and a bridge for hikers’ comfort and peace of mind
- Cutting new switchbacks to make the route less steep
- Widening the trail to make it easier to navigate
- Making landslides safe and passable
Upon their return to camp after a hard day’s work, volunteers frequented the river to relax and bathe, chatted in the camp kitchen as they prepared dinner, shared jokes and stories around the campfire, and did their best to stay cool under the blazing summer sun.
I absolutely loved the routine of the week, and more specifically the simplicity of the routine. My mind felt so clear knowing that all I had to do was eat, hike, work, chill, sleep, repeat!! Being in such a remote and beautiful natural spot, all working together for the same cause, with no WIFI for 7 days, and many wonderful moments shared around the campfire and kitchen, all constituted a way of life so different to my own back in London, which I appreciated so much. I loved the feeling of physical exhaustion at the end of each day, and the energy I felt every morning to get going all over again. I also really enjoyed learning the specific skills of trail building, using tools I haven’t before, and seeing the progress we made each day.
– 2023 international volunteer in Kichkhuldashi, Georgia
Youth For Change
TCT’s close partner Trails For Change (TFC) has been planning and managing volunteer trail building projects in Armenia since TFC’s founding in 2017, a wonderful development that grew out of our very first TCT Armenia trail building project in Dilijan National Park.
The 2023 season marked an expansion of their Youth For Change (YFC) program and our joint Caucasus Conservation Corps program, which employ participants in trail building and conservation projects to provide them with work experience, education in conservation and community development, and life skills. More than 100 young Armenians have participated thus far in projects located in Dilijan National Park, the Lori and Shirak regions in northern Armenia, and the Syunik and Vayots Dvor regions in southern Armenia. Upon completion of the YFC/CCC training programs, exceptional participants have the opportunity to continue their involvement in trailwork and conservation projects as seasonal or permanent employees of TFC or its partners.
Having fun collaborating and learning in Artavan, Armenia.
This season, Trails For Change held five weekend camps and four 10-day camps in regions throughout Armenia. A total of 85 young adults participated in the weekend camps, during which they were introduced to hiking, camping, and trail building.
The last camp of the year was designed for prior YFC participants and focused specifically on leadership development. TFC brought participants together with experts from the environmental field so they could gain a deeper understanding of outdoors and conservation topics and types of careers that might be available to them.
The 10-day camps built on the introduction offered in the weekend camps, and involved several types of activities and training from national park employees and students in environmental fields. Each camp had a particular focus, ranging from active trail building camps to more educational camps, during which participants learned about topics including:
- Wilderness first aid
- Climate change
- Adventure tourism
- Environmental protection
Irina Sindoyan, an Armenian crew leader who recently earned her Wilderness First Responder certification in Georgia, led a wilderness first aid and safety training for YFC participants, equipping them to prevent and manage emergencies in the field. In addition to the youth camps and this first aid training, Trails For Change also conducted a separate comprehensive first aid and personal safety course for park rangers to enhance their ability to effectively respond to emergencies and keep trailgoers safe. Because safety is a cornerstone of all TCT-related activities, we believe it’s crucial for everyone working on the trails to have knowledge of first aid and safety measures, and we aim to promote and share that knowledge with as many people as we can.
All of the Armenian programs were filled to capacity this year, and participants enjoyed learning new skills and seeing their local communities and environments in a new light. The last weekend camp of the season was recently held in mid-November, an exciting event to wrap up the year!
In all three countries, TCT volunteers enjoyed experiencing the simplicity and communal aspect of trail building and camp life, learning what goes into building and maintaining a trail, and seeing the fruits of their labor emerge as their days in the field progressed. The 2023 volunteers’ dedication, innovation, and camaraderie were instrumental to the success of another trail building season. After a season full of adventure, fun, laughter, new friendships, and trail improvements, volunteers returned to their hometowns with memories and inspiration from their time on the trail and hope to join another trail crew in the future.
Our volunteers are an integral part of the TCT and literally build the trail that hundreds of hikers see and use each year. Thank you to everyone who was involved in one of our volunteer programs this year! We greatly appreciate your enthusiasm, hard work, and dedication.
Stay tuned over the next few months for information about upcoming volunteer opportunities and learn how YOU can get involved in our projects!