Virtuous Vacations

For some, the only thing better than getting away from it all is getting in on an adventure for a good cause.

Julia Eagles nestled in her sleeping bag, drifting off to a chorus of loons and even the occasional howl of a wolf. Eagles had spent the day paddling the clear waters and hiking in the wilderness forest of Minnesota’s famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). Eagles was on vacation, but her trip was more than just a fitness jaunt. During her hike, the 48-year-old worked with a crew of six, armed with saws, shears and pickaxes, hacking and chopping through piles of dead and toppled trees that blocked key portage paths in the Boundary Waters. All day they cleared the trails of debris and tangled undergrowth, then paddled back to camp for a bracing lake swim followed by dinner around the campfire.

Eagles, of Erie, Pa., is one of estimated thousands of Americans who spend days or even weeks of vacation time putting their minds and muscles to work for others. “America’s volunteer spirit has flourished since 9/11,” notes Blue Magruder of Earthwatch, a nonprofit organization that takes 4,000 volunteers a year around the world to help support field research of sustainable environments. “Now more than ever, people understand the importance of doing something valuable with their time.”

An Internet search of volunteer vacations reveals hundreds of service-oriented possibilities all over the globe: tracking turtles on a sandy Caribbean beach with a biology team, stalking shy orangutans in the Indonesian rainforest with botanists – even caving in Kentucky, monitoring humidity with geologists.

These adventures with a cause usually last one to three weeks and accommodate every conceivable interest and fitness level. Instead of sightseeing, you’ll get an in-depth exploration of your destination, plus the chance to help other people, the environment or wildlife.

As on a vacation, you’ll have to buy your own ticket to your destination worksite. That may make you wonder why anyone would pay to sweat during precious time off instead of playing golf or visiting the spa. Most volunteers say they relish the opportunity to serve others, to make a real difference and to more fully experience a new place. Working for the greater good can be physically exhausting, but it also may renew your spirit more than 18 holes on the course.

That’s what keeps Eagles on the trail, with a saw in her hand. A fitness buff and outdoorswoman, she loves the excitement and physical challenge of a working vacation so much that she has volunteered to clear and repair trails numerous times. “Because I hike so much, I appreciate trails built for public use. Working on a crew, I’m giving back for all those free trails I’ve walked,” says Eagles, whose Boundary Waters trip was sponsored by the American Hiking Society. “When the day’s tasks are done, you have a tremendous sense of achievement, which is why, for me, this sort of trip is more satisfying than hiking with a club.”

Work in the Wild

Traveling with experts also gets you to places you might not be able to go on a more traditional tourist trip. “I’ve taken lots of cushy vacations, but I wanted something that gets me closer to the environment,” says Harvey Lowe, a 51-year-old wildlife photographer from East Orange, N.J. In the past decade, he’s gone on eight Earthwatch trips, including collecting data on a catlike Madagascar predator called a fossa, tracking orangutans as they travel through the rainforest treetops of Sumatra, and helping rope and tag peccaries (wild piglike animals) in Brazil.

Earthwatch supports scientists in the field by sending volunteers to help out with sometimes exciting, sometimes mundane work. “I have a new respect for nature and for people who commit their lives to scientific endeavors,” Lowe says. “Collecting data isn’t as glamorous as writing a book or giving a lecture, but I feel I’ve really contributed to our knowledge of biodiversity and ecosystems.”

For every type of wilderness work there is a variety of living conditions. For instance, Lowe’s South Africa excursion involved camping in tents, using a pit toilet and cooking over a fire as the group walked miles daily to do a census of big-game animals. In Sumatra, volunteers stayed at a river lodge decorated with bamboo furniture and equipped with flush toilets and a shower.

Not every wilderness experience is remote, however. Ann Harney, a Beverly, Mass., elementary teacher, fulfilled a lifetime dream by studying endangered hawksbill turtles in Barbados. Headquartered at a beach hotel, the volunteers and Earthwatch scientists patrolled the beaches from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., watching for females who came ashore to dig a nest and lay eggs. They recorded nest locations so they would know where and when the hatchlings were due to emerge from the sand.

“For two weeks we walked at least 10 miles a night in 90-degree heat, guided only by moonlight, since artificial lights confuse the turtles,” Harney explains. Teams also had the strenuous job of picking up the 150-pound turtles to weigh them. Once, they rescued hatchlings that were headed toward highway lights instead of into the surf.

“It’s a different kind of vacation, for sure,” Harney admits. “I experienced the island in a different light – literally, by moonlight. I saw more than resorts, and I met the residents in different situations because many of them actively help protect the animals by calling the hotline to report turtle sightings.”

Like many people who engage in cause-oriented adventures, Harney found that working for the sake of something meaningful was unique and rewarding. “Even though I stayed up all night on this trip, I felt rejuvenated because I was expressing my passion for the environment,” she says. “I spent my 59th birthday on a beautiful beach under a full moon helping turtles complete their life cycle. It was a ‘wow!’ experience the whole time.”

If I Had a Hammer

If you’re not a wilderness fan, there are trips that are closer to home. Boston-area engineer Joe Mario took his kids to West Virginia to help rebuild former coal-company housing in the rural, economically depressed Appalachian town of Beards Fork. “We went on ski vacations and Disneyland trips when the kids were young, but when they reached their early teens, we wanted to teach them about giving, not just getting,” he says.

As part of the weeklong Global Volunteers program, the Mario family framed walls, built steps and helped with electrical work in partnership with local high school dropouts who were completing their GED degrees and learning marketable construction skills. “I was touched to see my daughter and son realize that even though these people live in rundown shacks, they’re some of the warmest people you’ll ever meet,” Mario says.

The volunteers slept in bunks at the local community center, ate meals prepared by townspeople and enjoyed free time hiking and whitewater rafting. They also got to know a number of locals through work and by attending the town’s Southern Baptist church. Even though the volunteers saw only a portion of their home-building progress during a week, the project was gratifying. “I got to watch my own kids grow, and I forged relationships with others,” says Mario, who has returned to West Virginia three times and, on another Global Volunteers trip, took his daughter to rural China to teach English. “At the end of the week, there were heartfelt handshakes when we said goodbye,” says Mario.

Laurel Kallenbach is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo.

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