Out on the Trail with V-O-Cal’s Morris Older

August 27, 2014

This past weekend, a new trail was blazed from San Francisco’s McLaren Park to its Visitacion Valley neighborhood, providing a safe alternative to walking on a busy city street. The skilled squad of workers behind this new trail offered their time and effort for an organization called Volunteers for Outdoor California, or V-O-Cal. We spoke with longtime V-O-Cal project leader Morris Older about this nonprofit that has made a major contribution to the accessibility of public lands in Northern California.

V-O-Cal volunteer Morris Older at Muir WoodsBN: Are you originally from the Bay Area? If not, what brought you here?
I grew up on the upper West Side of Manhattan, but visited the Bay Area when I was 18 and was impressed by what seemed to be, in contrast with New York, small-town life and the fabulous surrounding hills. So knew I wanted to move here eventually. I visited for most of two summers after that, and finally managed to stay on my 4th trip. And I haven’t left except for vacations ever since.

BN: What is your role at V-O-Cal?
I’d been volunteering for trail work projects in the Bay Area and beyond for 20 years when Cathy Moyer started V-O-Cal in 2006. The idea of camping out at projects that lasted more than a half-day appealed to me, and at my first project, at Sky Ranch in Martinez, I was one of the crew leaders helping over 200 volunteers to engage productively. Since then I‘ve taken part, usually as a crew leader, in over 55 V-O-Cal projects, including both weekend and single-day projects, from Calistoga down to Big Sur. Over the last three years, I’ve been the project lead on seven or eight V-O-Cal events, and I’m one of the members of the V-O-Cal Planning Team, aka the Project Selection Committee.

BN: Can you give us an overview of what V-O-Cal does?
V-O-Cal organizes and leads large-scale trail work projects around the Bay Area with a variety of park districts, land trusts and other land managers. Usually it involves 100-200 volunteers participating in trail maintenance, re-construction, or re-routing, although we‘ve also planted trees, removed invasive species, built fences and the like—work that agencies otherwise do not have the budget or staffing to accomplish.   V-O-Cal provides the trail tools, the experienced crew leaders, and the organizational backbone to enable large groups of volunteers, both novices and veterans, to accomplish amazing trail transformations. Our partners this year have included the San Jose, Walnut Creek and Santa Clara County Parks Departments.

BN: Do you focus on a few really big projects each year, or lots of smaller ones?
Mostly we‘re limited by lack of funding, but we aim for about eight large-scale weekend projects per year and up to six one-day events, which may be team-building exercises for the corporate clients that hire us, as well as fundraisers for V-O-Cal. Many of our volunteers have become regulars, and we’d love to do more, but shortage of money — and the other life demands on our most experienced volunteers — dictate how much we can actually schedule each year.

BN: What void does V-O-Cal fill in the Bay Area environmental community?
Most regional park agencies have a backlog of trail maintenance and creation projects. V-O-Cal allows them to leverage limited staff resources and accomplish things right now that otherwise wouldn’t get done until years down the road.

Morris Older riding in the redwoodsBN: Tell us about the five-day Bay Area Ridge Trail Hike n Ride, which started yesterday?
The East Bay Hills Trails Benefit Hike and Ride started as an equestrian fundraiser for the Bay Area Ridge Trail, and for the last seven years has had hikers as well, hiking from Martinez to Castro Valley. Over $180,000 has been raised to support trail improvements, like the trail signs in Joaquin Miller Park, and volunteer trail maintenance projects like V-O-Cal, the East Bay Trail Dogs and the East Bay Regional Park District’s Ivan Dickson Volunteer Trails Maintenance Program. For the past five years, this event has relied on V-O-Cal’s kitchen equipment to feed participants and on an increasing number of V-O-Cal volunteers each year. Over $5,000 of the funds generated last year went to support this year’s V-O-Cal projects in the East Bay.

BN: What do you like the most about working on trail projects?
Trail work can be very exhilarating because in essence you are transforming the environment, making it more friendly, enabling people to enjoy it more. Making a trail more accessible can change the outlook and experiences of people you’ve never met, and when a large group of V-O-Cal volunteers convene, an amazing amount can get done very quickly. So there’s the camaraderie of shared accomplishment, and V-O-Cal is always fun, but it also changes the way that each volunteer views trails and the environment. From then on, they’ll see things on trails they never noticed before, and both appreciate good trail work by others before them, and notice trail issues waiting to be resolved.

BN: Is trail work just for young folks with strong bodies? How do you stay in shape for this vigorous work?
I’m not that young, or that strong, so I have to make efforts to be ready for the challenges of trail work.  I try to stay in shape by hiking often, walking every day, and working on trails as often as I can manage.  And of course finesse, a fine eye, and knowledge can be as critical as strength:  A large-scale trail project requires all kinds of camp skills that aren’t based on physical prowess. V-O-Cal  trail volunteers range in age from 14 to 88, working both in the trail and in our camp to make sure that our group efforts are productive, safe, and fun for all involved.

BN: How can people join in?
They can sign up for V-O-Cal projects at www.V-O-Cal.org, and once they’ve signed up for one event, they’ll receive notice of future events. For the East Bay Hills Trails Benefit Hike and Ride, volunteer sign up is here.

Morris working on a 2013 V-O-Cal Project at Taylor Mountain
Morris working on a 2013 V-O-Cal Project at Taylor Mountain
About the Author

Beth Slatkin is Bay Nature's marketing and outreach director.

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