On January 17, 2024

Vermont Huts Association looks to expand outdoor offerings, partners with Vermont Adaptive

By Alissa Frame, UVM Community News Service

Editor’s note: The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

For RJ Thompson, the seed of outdoor recreation started sprouting early on. He grew up camping with family and learning to ski — a passion that only grew as he got older, when as a student at the University of Vermont he helped form the ski and snowboard club in 2003. 

The college club, he said, kindled a desire to bring people together from different backgrounds to experience the outdoors in an approachable manner. Years later, in 2016, Thompson found himself with the opportunity to make that happen on a broader scale.

That year, alongside Devin Littlefield, Thompson co-founded the Vermont Huts Association. The group manages huts — which, in the outdoor recreation realm, resemble rustic cabins or yurts with basic amenities like bunks, mattress pads and propane cooktops. Littlefield had worked on a network of huts in Maine. 

The association’s mission, Thompson said, is to “foster a deeper appreciation [for] the natural environment by creating an enriching experience for everyone.” 

 

“A lot of adult groups get overlooked … 
You’re kind of expected to be an adult 
and figure it out yourself,” 
Twitchell said.

To do this, the group has been working to build a statewide, hut-supported trail network in partnership with the Catamount Trail Association and Vermont Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation, among other groups. The idea is for folks to have a convenient, immersive place to stay while exploring Vermont’s trails and backcountry.

Reflecting fondly on childhood memories at summer day camps, Thompson wanted to launch a program that would help give young people of all backgrounds the same sort of positive outdoor experiences. “I was thinking, we have this resource in the backcountry, and let’s make sure everyone can use it,” Thompson said.

So in 2020, Vermont Huts started a program called FOREST — or “Fostering Outdoor Recreation, Education, Sustainability and Teamwork” — that aims to bring together people who otherwise might not have the chance to explore the backcountry or feel comfortable doing so.

In its first two full years, the program has offered more than half a dozen free retreats to students ages 11 to 18, bringing students to huts at Grout Pond and Chittenden Brook in the Green Mountain National Forest. Participants have enjoyed nature walks, cooking meals, bushcraft lessons and more — activities vary based on what people want to do or learn.

So far, the retreats have taken place through partnerships with school districts and other organizations like the Teen Center in Middlebury. Josh Fisher, one of Vermont Huts’ contracted outdoor educators, led a retreat with the latter. 

He described how it’s important to foster an accommodating environment and tailor the experience to particular groups. “My big focus is … how are they interacting with the outdoors as individuals and as a group?” Fisher said. “Because the goal is to get them to enjoy it.” 

He added, “So hopefully we can keep building our populace of people who love to recreate in the outdoors.”

Early on, organization leaders saw their focus on just young people was too simple. 

“We really quickly realized that there was a lot more than just underserved youths that were not getting access to the outdoors,” said Maggie Twitchell, program and communication coordinator for Vermont Huts. “There were people of color. There was the LGBTQ+ community. There were indigenous Americans.”

It became clear that some barriers to recreation went well beyond economic restrictions — in fact, Twitchell believes, some barriers surrounding safety and inclusivity are “probably even harder than an economic restriction.”

Vermont Huts is trying to better understand the needs and hesitations that particular groups may have regarding backcountry treks — so the FOREST program is fluidly evolving. The initial vision folks like Thompson had for retreats — such as teaching skills like rope tying or fire-making — is not always what participants want or need from the outdoors. 

Now, Vermont Huts is reaching out to community organizations and saying, “Look, we have accommodation out there, and we have funding, and we can help you achieve whatever your goals are to access the space that is out there,” said Twitchell.

Vermont Huts would like to expand beyond just youth retreats to serve a wider, more diverse demographic. A new partnership with Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports is one way to make this happen.

 

Vermont Huts would like to expand beyond just youth
retreats to serve a wider, more diverse demographic. 
A new partnership with Vermont Adaptive Ski and 
Sports is one way to make this happen.

 

 

Vermont Adaptive is an organization dedicated to empowering individuals of all abilities — including those with physical and cognitive disabilities — through sports and recreation opportunities. The group uses specialized equipment, alongside trained staff and volunteers, to fit the needs of participants doing everything from mountain biking to kayaking to skiing.

Jeff Alexander, director of strategic partnerships with Vermont Adaptive, said the group plans to develop FOREST outings accessible to those with disabilities. For example, retreat participants who have visual or motor function disabilities could use equipment modified to be more comfortable. Vermont Adaptive staff would be on site to support participants’ recreation and learning.

The two organizations are also working to develop a more extensive network of accessible trails in the state, including those that lead to the huts. The two organizations are collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service to outfit huts with all-terrain wheelchairs. This way, if someone comes to the hut on an adaptive bike, for example, they will have an onsite wheelchair to help them move around the hut.

Alexander said Vermont Adaptive plans to organize retreats through Vermont Huts for its veterans program as well, offering participants a sense of camaraderie they may have been missing.

As Twitchell put it, “A lot of adult groups get overlooked … You’re kind of expected to be an adult and figure it out yourself.”

The partnership with Vermont Adaptive could counter that trend. 

“We just want to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to recreate, and partnering with Vermont Huts is amazing because they believe the same thing,” Alexander said.

In line with the program’s growth, Vermont Huts wants to expand the team of educators who facilitate FOREST retreats. “We [found] that our educators don’t represent the communities that we want to help. And that’s a barrier in itself,” Twitchell said. 

“Not having educators who are people of color or are from the LGBTQ+ community means that we really aren’t serving those communities as well,” she added. 

So Vermont Huts wants to partner with groups like Pride Center of Vermont, Outright Vermont and Huntington Open Women’s Land to offer members outdoor educator training, Twitchell said. The hope is to nurture new educators for the huts system and to bring certification opportunities to more people.

Twitchell emphasized how the organization is actively looking for participants and groups interested in outings through the FOREST program. And outside the FOREST program, interested folks can book a stay in any of their huts — many of which are available year-round.

“We’re really looking to do something special here in Vermont, and it’s not just going to be our organization who does it. It’s going to be all the partners working together,” Thompson said. He praised the role of volunteers in recreation opportunities: “We’re building a lot of this onto the success that they’ve achieved years before us.”

Thompson is optimistic about what lies ahead. 

“It can grow into what I ultimately think it wants to be,” he said of the FOREST program, “which is creating this safe space for anyone to have that experience and to hopefully just feel comfortable in the outdoors.”

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