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Outdoor club members finding ways to stay connected

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

Normally in early September, local outdoor clubs would be regrouping from a summer hiatus and resuming monthly meetings and public programs on everything from birdwatching to elk hunting.

But the pandemic has changed what’s normal.

Physical distancing restrictions have prompted many clubs to rely more on websites, virtual meetings and social media, although some groups have found a way carry on in the field, too.

Here’s how a sampling of established Spokane-area outdoor clubs are coping.

The Spokane Mountaineers (spokanemountaineers.org), founded in 1915, has logged successes amid the disappointments of COVID-19 restrictions.

“We ended 2019 with more than 800 members,” said Li Ciavola, vice president. “With website issues and without the meetings and schools we normally sponsor, I suspect that renewals for 2020 are down. There’s a disconnect in communication.”

The annual Mountain School, a 13-week course on the basics of climbing, had already begun by the time the pandemic began.

“We had canceled Backpacking School outright, a really hefty decision, but we tried to continue Mountain School with online sessions, Ciavola said. “The climbing committee had long conversations and ultimately decided it wasn’t possible to adequately teach mountaineering safety and skills while respecting the pandemic protocols. It was a difficult decision, but we shut down Mountain School, too.

“During summer, we’ve tried to maintain a presence with online discussions and social media posts about cool places to hike and things like that, but we’re not promoting any in-person activities.”

Although the trip leadership element had to be curtailed this season, Mountaineers have been schooled in the basics that allow them to safely continue a healthy lifestyle of hiking and climbing adventures on their own, he said.

Mountain School students Jeci and Jason Adams reached the peak of their relationship by getting married in July during a climb of Mount Adams.

“We want to keep club members out there,” Ciavola said, noting that the pandemic has prompted people to flock outdoors, crowding public access sites, parks and trails. “Mountaineers offer some balance for respecting public lands.”

The club’s first online general membership meeting featured Rod Price, who set a goal of climbing 55 peaks to celebrate his 55th birthday year and highlight issues involving suicides among veterans.

“The virtual meeting was viewed by more people than physically attend normal meetings,” Ciavola said, “and Price’s trip reports can still be viewed on our Facebook page.”

The club canceled most trail-building and maintenance projects in Idaho, Oregon and Eastern Washington this season. Members were determined to complete construction of the 2.25-mile Flying L Trail from the new Phillips Creek Trailhead in Spokane Valley’s Ponderosa neighborhood to link into the main trail running through the Glenrose Unit of the Dishman Hills Conservation Area. The trailhead is set to open this weekend complete with a webcam link on the Spokane County Parks webpage.

“The Mountaineers took the lead on this from layout through construction, with a lot of labor help from members of Dishman Hills Conservancy, Evergreen East and Washington Trails Association,” said Lynn Smith, Mountaineers trail projects leader.

A dozen or so experienced trail volunteers networked by email to coordinate work, as they were self-supported and self-scheduled, using their own tools on their own timetable, he said.

“Since there was no outreach, organizing, training, carpooling, group-ups, or end-of-day tailgating, they were folks already hopelessly addicted to trail projects – and it worked!”

Smith said.

The volunteers logged about 1,500 hours, including walking in and out of the work sites, Smith said.

“I think COVID-19, like Mount St. Helens 1980, will be a subject of outdoor retrospection,” he said. “I’ve heard about a bunch of ‘shelter in place’ projects like learning a foreign language, rereading the home library and refitting a drift boat, but constructing a new community trail is well up there in the ‘added value’ column, and the product will be used for generations.”

Evergreen East (evergreenmtb.org) has found COVID-19 to be a shot in the arm for its mountain biking projects in some ways even though its spring race series had to be canceled.

“Suddenly in March a lot of people weren’t working, so they filled their time and needs by coming out for trail work,” said Chris Conley, president of the group formally known as the Eastern Washington Chapter of Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance. “That was a real boost to finishing the Turtle Gulch Trail at Saltese Uplands Conservation Area.

Riding classes were canceled this summer, but members were encouraged to get together on their own riding and working in small groups.

“When the state went into Phase 2, we could get out in groups of up to eight volunteers and were able to accomplish more,” Conley said. “We gained 19 new members in July, up to 443.”

For fall, the group plans more work on Trail 290 at Mount Spokane State Park as well as at Mica Peak Conservation Area, where members have completed Silicate Slide Trail. A connector trail is planned to avoid a road at the bottom to make the downhill biker’s flow trail a single-track all the way, he said.

The group also is working to secure public access to trails on private lands at Beacon Hill.

Spokane Audubon Society (audubonspokane.org) members normally serve the community with field trips and by responding to calls from teachers seeking classroom nature programs. “But that’s all been out the window since March,” said Alan McCoy, president.

The club is developing its website, making its Facebook page more active and producing a robust newsletter, he said.

Until the COVID-19 situation changes, the club plans to replace in-person gatherings with Zoom meetings, the first of which is set for Wednesday at 7 p.m. Featured speakers will be the local photographers whose images were chosen by judges to grace the Spokane Audubon birds of Eastern Washington 2021 calendar.

“The winning photographers are a diverse group of men and women, including two teenagers, who will be telling the stories behind their winning shots,” McCoy said.

Meanwhile, members have been organizing informal trips with a just a few people and, regrettably, without the usual cookie sharing, he said.

“Frankly, birding can be done quite safely if only family groups share vehicles,” he said. “The rest is outside and easy to physical distance.”

Birders are well-connected to carry on with their passion through a pandemic. For example, eBird, launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is an online database of observations providing scientists and amateur naturalists with real-time data about bird distribution and abundance.

“You can get notifications in any given area about rare bird sightings with maps and details,” he said. “Fishermen might be a little quiet about their honey holes, but birders are liberal with info about their sightings.”

Inland Northwest Wildlife Council (inwc.org), founded in 1951, is perhaps the area’s most prosperous outdoor group with its own office building and infrastructure owing to the success and income from the annual Big Horn Outdoor Recreation Show, which fills the Spokane County Fair & Expo Center with exhibitors in March.

The 60-year streak for that show ended this year because COVID-19 restrictions. Canceling the council’s major annual fundraiser put a damper on what the club is all about. The show supports the club’s office staff and substantial support to hunting, fishing and wildlife conservation projects ranging from introducing kids to fishing to providing radio transmitters and field volunteers for state wildlife studies.

“It’s been tough not to be able to have members in our building, where much of the advance work is done,” said Marie Neumiller, executive director, from the council office at 6116 N. Market Street.

When contacted in late August, she said volunteers were constructing and installing platforms at designated sites that accommodate wheelchairs for disabled hunters. The council arranges for places on private and public land where hunters with limited mobility can sit and have a chance of encountering game such as deer.

A few of the council’s annual programs met the state’s agricultural exemptions and were able to continue. More than 5,105 pheasant chicks were distributed in the spring to people who pledged to raise the birds and release them into the wild.

The club also selling bulk bags of birdseed at good prices with curbside pickup.

“We’re not having general membership meetings, but we’re reaching out to members virtually,” Neumiller said. “A new website will allow for a blog to give updates on projects and we’re using social media platforms including Instagram and Twitter, with the most popular being Facebook.”

Videos on outdoor skills are being filmed for posting on the Washington Fish and Wildlife website in September as well as on the council’s YouTube channel, she said.

“Even in the slowdown, our committee volunteers are working out there on things like habitat maintenance projects,” she said.

In August, the Fishing Committee rallied volunteers to paint stripes defining parking slots at Liberty Lake’s public boat access.

Normally, the council’s numerous hunter education courses would be booked solid with potential first-time hunters.

“That’s all gone online this year,” Neumiller said. “Even the ‘field day’ is being handled online.

“This is not the way I expected this to be,” she added, noting that she took the reigns as executive director just before the pandemic raised its ugly head. “But we’re carrying on. We’ll find our way.”

Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club (sckc.club) has canceled all of its events for the year, as members are getting on the water in privately organized small groups.

“Virtual events didn’t float well with paddlers,” kayaker Steve Bailey said. “But boaters whipped up enthusiasm by posting videos to get some chatter going on Facebook.”

When quarantine restrictions first loosened up a bit, club members organized an event in which solo paddlers or a small team would launch a canoe, kayak or raft at Barker Road, float to Mirabeau Park, and then bicycle back on the Centennial Trail to Barker. The time stopped when the team and shuttle vehicle were all back at Mirabeau.

Staying in top paddling shape going into the season was difficult as fitness clubs were closed or restricted, Bailey said.

Spokane Bicycle Club (spokanebicycleclub.org) has canceled all club-sponsored bike rides until further notice, said Jim O’Hare, club president.

Club members are communicating by email and the website, were some cyclists are posting reports on their rides complete with GPS tracks for sharing routes.

The pandemic has spawned a big increase throughout the country in bicycling and demands for bicycles.

“It’s great to see so many families out there riding,” O’Hare said. “We’d like to help them with routes and safety, but group rides outside of families are too risky for our club to sponsor at this time.”

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