By: Claudia Bueermann
When talking with people about gearing up to head out for a “trip for work,” most folks don’t envision white sand beaches, snorkeling around islands, hiking small mountains, or paddling in bioluminescent bays. Every now and then, we here at Apogee have “pinch me” moments while working. I caught myself on our April scouting trip thinking: “a year from now, twelve students who don’t know each other are going to do this exact thing, and this trip could have a profound impact on who they become.” Those are the “pinch me” moments that we live for and keep us coming back each day!
In 2010, we here at Apogee launched our first program outside of the realm of hiking and biking trips: a community service-based trip in Puerto Rico called Caribbean Service. Since its introduction, it has been one of the most popular trips that we offer. We have long wanted to add on an additional community service trip to our roster of incredible teen trips, but we have wanted it to be at the right time and in the right spot.
Enter… St. Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands (USVI).
Associate Director Claudia at the scenic overlook after hiking Mt. Eagle in St. Croix
As you can imagine, the key to a successful community service trip is finding the right organizations to partner with. Our vision for this trip was to find a few organizations that match two key criteria: 1) they help the local community in a meaningful way and 2) they are willing to help coordinate service projects and work with twelve teenagers for multiple hours a day, multiple days in a row, three times throughout a summer. After our initial reach-out to a handful of organizations that matched the above criteria, we were met with nothing but enthusiastic responses. Knowing that our idea was sound, we charged ahead with our planning, culminating in our scouting trip detailed below.
With only a few full days on the island, Apogee Associate Director, Will Robertson, and I knew we were in for long stretches of back-to-back meetings with potential outfitters and service partners, sandwiched in between scurrying all over the island looking at potential housing options, setting eyes (and feet) on the various hiking trails, and checking out grocery stores, healthcare options, and other risk management essentials.
We dove into our meetings with our service partners quickly after arriving. The USVI Nature Conservancy has their offices right outside of Christiansted, the capital of St. Croix. After touring their Coral Labs (where they are currently helping to grow coral and introduce it to the reefs), we settled in to talk through what our group might be able to help with during their time on the island. Between removing invasive species, helping with trail maintenance, gathering turtle nesting data, and constructing bird boxes, we discovered that the list of helpful projects could go on indefinitely. We can’t wait for our students to arrive to start up projects with them!
Beautiful Fort Christiansvaern in St. Croix has a rich history, dating back to 1738!
Right after chatting with the Nature Conservancy, we headed right down the street to the animal shelter. St. Croix has a very large stray dog and cat population; the shelter explained to us that on any given day, they receive an average of fifteen to twenty puppies or kittens. After Hurricane Maria and Irma in 2017 destroyed their original location, the shelter was forced to move into a much smaller space. Upon arrival, we were met with a cacophony of barking pooches, wagging tails, and the most friendly staff. After just a few minutes of speaking with their volunteer coordinator, we knew this would be a perfect spot for our group to lend a hand. Between dog walks and socialization, painting, and helping out at the animal shelter’s fundraising flea market, our 2024 group is in for an (adorable) treat for their service projects!
Although we spent plenty of time in face-to-face meetings, we also had to be sure to check out each of the activities our group will be doing. On our second night, we gobbled down a quick dinner then took off to meet up with our bioluminescent bay kayaking outfitter just as the sun dipped below the horizon. After a safety briefing and as the first stars began to peek out, we climbed into our kayaks and took off in search of the sparkly microscopic creatures that create bioluminescence. As a group, we paddled along the St. Croix salt river into the mouth of the bay, passing hundreds of egrets tucked into trees along the way. Once we entered the 10 acre bay, our guides walked us through how and why this space exists, what bioluminescence actually is, and then gave us a chance to paddle our way through the bay, leaving behind glowing streaks in our kayak’s wake along the way. With each paddle dip, a brilliant and bright underwater world would appear, exist for a few moments, and then quietly return to blackness. As one excited fourteen year old in our group put it, “holy cow! It looks like Avatar!” And when we think about it now, we can’t sum it up better than he did.
Claudia, Will, and Will’s wife (and honorary Apogee scouter), Mackenzie on their way to go snorkel!
Next on our docket for outfitter meetings and activity testing was a boat ride out to snorkel around one of the USVI’s protected national monuments: Buck Island. After a quick twenty-minute boat ride to our first stop, we were given a snorkeling lesson and hopped out onto Turtle Beach to practice our new skills. Turtle Beach is famous for two reasons: first, and perhaps most obviously, it is a primary nesting site for leatherback sea turtles. Second, it is also famous for producing some of the largest, and most pristine conch shells in the entire Caribbean. Littered along the beach were hundreds of full sized, perfectly intact conches. Between the magnificent shells, the white sand beach, and clear turquoise waters, it was nothing short of a perfect St. Croix postcard picture. After our practice session, we climbed back onto the boat and took off for the other side of the island where our crew set anchor and we climbed into the crystal clear waters. Following our guides, we snorkeled out to the coral reefs along the break, seeing hundreds of rainbow-colored fish and other exciting sea creatures along the way. On our way back to Christiansted, we excitedly debriefed what we saw underwater – all the while thinking of how cool of an experience this will be for our Apogee students!
We’ll spare you the details of the rest of the trip, but after a number of spectacular hikes and other trip-planning tasks, we felt really great about the newest addition to the Apogee catalog: Caribbean Service: Virgin Islands. It will be a 12-day trip, mirroring the dates of its sister trip, the aforementioned Caribbean Service: Puerto Rico program. The group will stay in rustic indoor accommodations, they’ll snorkel, kayak, swim, hike, and will do between 25 and 30 hours of community service over the course of their 12 days, all while taking in the rich culture and history of the island of St. Croix. We’re excited to have another option for our students who are interested in service trips, and can’t wait for our first students to step off the plane in St. Croix in June of 2024. Enrollment for our 2024 season will be live this July. Check back then and be sure to grab a spot early – we know they won’t last long!
Associate Director Will showcasing the beautiful crystal waters you could see if you sign up for 2024’s Caribbean Service: Virgin Islands trip (and if you like the water bottle, head to our gear store to get one for yourself)!