Susan Elderkin, Communications Director Reflects on 19 Years with WTA
Today is Susan Elderkin's final day as Communications & Outreach Director for Washington Trails Association. She looks back to her first work party in 1995 and all the years in between now and then.
Today is my last day at WTA. I'm moving on to spend more time with my two kids -- whose mugs have graced dozens of photos in the magazine and website -- and to launch a consulting career to share more broadly what I've learned over seven wonderful years on staff at WTA.
My WTA story
It is certainly not good-bye. WTA is in my blood, and every time I have left it, I've returned in a new capacity that feeds my passion for hiking and my desire to give back to this amazing community. I sought the organization out shortly after I moved to Seattle in 1995. I was fresh off thru-hiking the Colorado Trail, and I was looking to volunteer with a group that helped maintain hiking trails -- paying forward the handiwork of hardy volunteers I had met on my thru-hike.
A month into my life in Seattle, on Nov. 5, 1995, I wielded a Pulaski on my first WTA work party in the pouring rain with a smiling Greg Ball.
Three years later, I joined WTA's Board of Directors. In the board room with me were several titans of Washington's hiking legacy. I learned from the likes of the venerable photographer, guidebook author and "green-bonding" advocate Ira Spring, who liked to think big (WTA should have 2 million members!) and his son John Spring, who was instrumental in developing the trail maintenance program. There was Mark Boyar, who has almost single-handedly transformed the Middle Fork Snoqualmie from a shooting range to a safe recreational destination, and Susan Saul, who was (and remains) a tireless advocate for wildland protections in the Gifford Pinchot's Dark Divide and Mount St. Helens.
I hopped in with gusto, helping hire Elizabeth Lunney as the Executive Director in 1999 (who brought the total full-time staff to three). This freed Greg Ball to develop and grow the trail maintenance program, and Elizabeth and I (in the role of Board President) set to putting WTA in a stronger position to support the growth of that work as well as our expanding platform for hiker information.
In 2004, my board term was up, but WTA's magnetic pull was too strong. I returned as a volunteer in 2006 to help with strategic planning, then gave my thoughts about a magazine redesign and ultimately took on a project to redevelop the website. WTA's visionary and volunteer webmaster Bill Sunderland was "retiring," and WTA needed to relaunch the website in a format that could be edited in-house. After volunteering for a few months, I joined the staff part-time in 2007 to take on this project in an official capacity.
From its beginnings, WTA's website has always been a collaborative effort with a community at its heart. It was Bill who thought to cultivate Trip Reports online (in 1997!) and who started a Hiking Guide. Former Communications Director Lauren Braden (also the brain behind NW Trip Finder) designed its look and feel. Consultant (and hiker) Jon Stahl transformed our vision into reality. The result is what you enjoy today, improved each year by updated designs (like the new look for Trip Reports and the Hiking Guide that launched this July), added features (like My Backpack's saved hikes) and new ways to search it (like WTA's mobile app).
My legacy is in hundreds (maybe even a thousand) of articles, blogs and features in the website's archive and in Washington Trails magazine. I've sought to consolidate hard-to-find information in one place -- from demystifying the passes and permits and camping reservations systems to explaining plainly the impact to hikers of events like fires and last fall's government shutdown. I've particularly worked hard to make hiking accessible to everyone through expanded family content and seasonal features.
And I've sought to tell you the story of WTA: of our amazing volunteers, who dedicate their time to making your hiking trails better; of outdoorsy teenagers who spend their summers giving back and non-outdoorsy kids who get to go hiking for the very first time; of conservation issues that are of importance to hikers and need your voice; and of the fantastic community of trip reporters and hikers.
Over the years I've been at WTA, our communications tools have evolved from postcards and letters to email and social media. Our online and offline community continues to thrive. And through it all, we continue to publish the amazing Washington Trails magazine (become a member to receive it), now in its 48th year.
WTA is hiring!
I am eager to pass the reins of the Communications and Outreach Director position to someone who is smart, strategic and super savvy -- someone who can use all the tools we have at our disposal to inspire and educate hikers in new and creative ways.
The next director will join WTA at an exciting time: WTA will be going through strategic planning in 2015 and celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016. They will be joining a super strong and collaborative communications team which is part of a larger staff that does amazing work on behalf of hikers and trails. Please check out the job description and pass it along.
Farewell, but not goodbye
So farewell, but not goodbye. I am sure to open a new chapter with WTA soon. In the meantime, I'll see you on the trail.