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New Forest Conservancy wilderness rangers Patty Fox (left) and the author, Toddi Gutner, at the Conundrum Trailhead.
Judy Wender/Courtesy photo

As a 13-year-old backpacking with my dad, I’ll never forget the contentment I felt as I hiked up the rocky trail alongside the raging Hunter Creek. From that first backpacking trip in 1973, I fell in love with this valley, which we had been visiting during winter and summer vacations since 1963.

The passion I experienced in Aspen’s backcountry only grew with each passing year. But it wasn’t until the pandemic when an exploding number of people began to enjoy the outdoors, did I think about the importance of preserving our environment and educating the public on how best to minimize their impact. 

I thank my friend, Tori Adams, an avid hiker who had become a volunteer wilderness ranger for the Forest Conservancy last summer, for inspiring me to become a volunteer as well. Though I have been in the valley for years, I had never heard of this 22-year-old non-profit. 



The Forest Conservancy is incredibly well-run under the stewardship of the executive director, Marcia Johnson. There is a full-day training session for the new volunteers, a robust, easy-to-use website chock-full of training material, continuing education articles and classes, and the ability to schedule a hiking patrol and see reports that each volunteer must file when they return from their hike. 

Johnson takes between 10-13 new volunteers each year, and I quickly signed up for the 2023 class last winter. Options for volunteers vary; the roles have slightly different responsibilities (To learn more, go to forestconservancy.com). 



As a first-year volunteer wilderness ranger, I do two mentor hikes with a long-time volunteer and then one-day rangering at Maroon Bells Visitor Center with another mentor. After those three mentor hikes, you are asked to complete a minimum of seven hikes (including the three mentor hikes) over the hiking season, choosing from a list of 91 hikes in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. 

I awoke with excitement on the day of my first mentor hike with Judy Wender and another newbie, Patty Fox, at Conundrum Hot Springs Trail. I reviewed the volunteer manual and previous patrols, printed the map of the area, and diligently dressed in my (first official!) uniform ensuring all my buttons and badges were appropriately affixed.

At the trailhead, Wender had us empty our packs to ensure that we had all the hiking patrol essentials. She quizzed about what we would do if there was a dog off-leash in a wilderness area or how to ensure that backpackers had a permit for the area. We hiked for about three miles and returned.

The aim of a patrol is not to hike an entire trail but rather answer questions from day hikers and backpackers as well educate about the environment and leave-no-trace principles. 

Feeling more confident in my abilities, I met Donna Grauer, a master naturalist, for my second mentor hike. She also choose Conundrum, a popular trail to train new volunteers because of its popularity with backpackers and increased regulations as a Wilderness Area. We sat at the trailhead for a while before we hiked as she peppered us with questions on how to handle certain situations.  

I am in awe of the knowledge that this group of volunteers holds. From the identification of nearly every wildflower, tree, and shrubbery to the names of every sound and sight of birds, I aspire to be just as educated.

When each hike is completed, I write a patrol report that identifies the number of hikers, backpackers, dogs on-leash, off-leash, and any relevant information about the trail (such as if the trail is snow covered, is there a tree down across the trail, or any wildlife sightings, etc). 

For my final requirement, veteran volunteer Mary Griffin mentored me at the Maroon Bells Visitor Center, where busloads of tourists approach the center upon arrival. From answering never-ending questions to alerting the U.S. Forest Rangers to a boy that was separated from his family, it was clear there was a real value to our presence. 

Now that I have my three pieces of training behind me, I look forward to continuing to do my typical three-hike-a-week schedule. Only now, I hike with a purpose beyond exercise and the appreciation of the surrounding beauty.  

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