Eileen Yin spent most of her spring online with AMC. A long-time volunteer with the organization’s New York–North Jersey Chapter, Yin has dedicated much of her free time to planning and leading trips for her chapter, providing a space for members to socialize, try new activities, or just be outdoors.
“AMC made a big difference in my life. I’ve gotten a lot out of it and made a lot of close friendships, and I became a volunteer to help continue that service for others,” says Yin, who lives in New York City and serves as co-chair of the New York–North Jersey Chapter biking committee.
But with the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent stay-at-home orders across the country, Yin and other volunteer leaders in AMC’s 12 chapters faced a brand-new challenge: finding ways to engage with members when they could no longer offer trips in person.
“New York City shut down early, so we had to adjust fast,” Yin recalls. “We started hosting Tuesday ‘Lunch and Learn’ presentations online. That helped us promote conservation work, which sometimes gets lost when we’re outside recreating.”
Equipped with a Zoom video conferencing account, volunteer leaders, including Yin, invited members to “#BeOnlinewithAMC,” offering online presentations on conservation topics, adventure travel, hiking tips, or more general social happy hours. Since March, volunteers have facilitated 75 online socials, presentations, and trainings, according to Justin Bailey, AMC volunteer relations manager, and that number continues to climb.
“I think one of the most important things we’ve pulled from this experience is that there is a huge opportunity for volunteers to offer trips and activities online, and now they have the tools to easily do that,” Bailey says.
Even volunteers from AMC’s nine shut-down Volunteer Led Camps and Cabins (VCC)—which include everything from the mountain oasis Cold River Camp in Chatham, N.H., to the seaside escape on Fire Island off Long Island in New York—have been forced from their normal summer plans. For many families and volunteers who stay at these camps each summer, this news that VCCs would not be opening was yet another heartbreaking addition to the long list of 2020 cancellations. In response, some of the VCCs set up virtual “campfires” as a way to catch up with campers and tell stories, much like you would around an actual campfire.
“The virtual experiences that VCCs create this summer connect campers to the traditions they know and love while celebrating the best aspect of camp: the people,” says Jess Wilson, AMC volunteer camps and cabins director.
As states started opening back up after the initial surge of the virus, AMC created its own phased rollout plan for volunteer leaders. Phase 1, which launched June 15 (with some restrictions in states that were reopening at a slower pace), capped in-person trips to four people, including leaders, and restricted trips mainly to trail and camp maintenance activities, according to Bailey.
Phase 2, which launched June 22, allowed leaders to offer recreational trips to groups of 10 or fewer, with the same physical distancing and mask requirements. To ensure leaders are confident in adhering to these requirements, they must first watch a training video AMC produced and pass a short review test before they can start offering trips. For both phases 1 and 2, travel between states is only allowed if both the state of origin and destination don’t have quarantine restrictions, and if the group plans to stay overnight, all participants must supply their own food, water, tents, and gear. Leaders must enforce physical distancing and mask-wearing and carry extra medical-grade gloves and hand sanitizer in their first-aid kits.
“We take pride in that we want to get outdoors, but we also remain COVID-conscious,” says Faith Salter, AMC director of volunteer relations. “I really appreciate the ‘roll up your sleeves and work together’ attitude our staff and volunteers have shown, and it’s a real testament to them on how much they understand our priorities to safety when being outdoors.”
David Mong, a volunteer leader with the New York–North Jersey, Delaware Valley, and Potomac chapters, has led a few in-person trips since late June, though he says he’s still adjusting to the new protocols and trying to figure out how to best keep his participants safe.
“I led a bikepacking trip where we were able to physical distance pretty well, and when we camped we cooked separately and spaced our tents far apart,” Mong explains. “But on a separate backpacking trip it was a lot more difficult to physical distance [while hiking], as people kept bunching up on the trail.”
As a rule, Mong has decided that he will require participants to wear masks at all times during his hiking and backpacking trips. For activities where physical distancing is easier, like cycling, he says he is more lenient on this rule.
“I’ve been extremely blunt [to participants] about the mask policy and let them decide if they want to come,” Mong says. “For me, it’s just too dangerous to let someone without a mask come on my trip.”
Monitoring the health of leaders and participants requires a heavy dose of transparency, Salter says. Under AMC guidelines, if a leader shows symptoms of COVID-19 prior to their trip, they must cancel the trip immediately. If a person on the trip tests positive for COVID-19 later on or finds out about exposure prior to the AMC trip they attended, they must also report that to the leader immediately.
“Our biggest concern here was how to do contact tracing and assure the safety of our leaders. We had to feel like we could offer in-person trips with a reasonable amount of caution before going onto Phase 2,” Salter says.
In cities like New York, Boston, or Washington D.C., volunteer leaders faced an added challenge of planning trips that didn’t require participants to use public transportation to access a trip starting point.
“One of our leaders has been doing urban walks in the city, and our canoe and kayak committee is offering more flatwater trips that you can bike to start versus our usual whitewater trips that require shuttling everyone in a car,” Yin says.
For the inter-chapter climbing committee, which is made up of volunteer leaders from every AMC chapter and chaired by Bill Fogel of the Berkshire Chapter, it’s been nearly impossible to hold in-person climbing trips safely under AMC’s COVID-19 guidelines.
“With climbing, you have a lot of close contact with your partner and a lot of shared gear,” Fogel says. When you have a group of strangers getting together to climb, you can’t do that, though, and the climbing committee realized they had two choices—either go on hiatus until they could safely offer climbing trips again, or come up with an alternative.
They decided on the latter. Since June, Fogel and other leaders from various chapters have organized trail work trips to help build new hiking and climbing trails around Hanging Mountain in the Berkshires.
“In this way, we’re still engaging with our climbing network,” Fogel says.
AMC continues to monitor reports from the CDC and other health agencies regarding COVID-19. The start of phase 3 will be determined by the availability of testing and a vaccine, and personal protective equipment, Bailey says.
“The safety of participants and volunteers is paramount, and until we can lift restrictions while not increasing risk then we have to remain in phase 2,” Bailey says. “Phase 3 is a moving target. We are closely tracking what is going on across all of the states that we operate in and things are just too fluid to predict right now.”
Despite the safety restrictions, volunteers like Yin, Mong, and Fogel are happy they can still lead trips for AMC.
“I appreciate that the AMC volunteer relations team was willing to put together the framework so we could run volunteer-led activities,” Yin says. “They could have easily said ‘we’re going to pause [until COVID-19 is over],’ but instead they took on the challenge to put together rules that are safety-conscious.”