Elaine Dermody could fill several books with the text of her adventures. The 76-year-old has climbed Mount Whitney — the highest summit in the contiguous United States — twice, and she still loves backpacking in California’s High Sierras. And when she and her husband retired early, they traveled across the country in a Fleetwood Flair Class A motor home for six years, returning home to Florida for only a couple of months each year.
They bought the biggest motor home they could that still would be allowed in national parks, and when they couldn’t get the RV in, they’d hop on their bikes.
Along the way, they found Steamboat Springs. And it was a handful of llamas that finally motivated them to move here in 1997.
“When I found out I could get out into the wilderness and not have to carry a heavy backpack, that’s when I told my husband we were moving,” says Dermody.
For many years, Dermody has put off retirement to protect the places where people go to disconnect from their cellphones, televisions and computers. In 2000, she started Friends of the Wilderness, a volunteer organization that helps to maintain the Sarvis Creek, Flat Tops and Mount Zirkel wilderness areas.
When the group started, the focus was on educating visitors about wilderness regulations. They’d inform campers where they could and couldn’t camp and help clear trash and other things left behind (Dermody once found a toilet seat at an abandoned campsite). After years of fires, beetle-kill and other forest challenges, the volunteers started to help maintain trails.
“I feel strongly about having a place to go where you can connect with nature,” Dermody says. “Our souls need a place to go to regenerate our spirits, and nature is where that is. It’s important to our survival.”
Dermody considered scaling back her volunteer work to focus on her painting. But she kept going back to the wilderness.
Her reach went national five years ago when she helped start the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance, an organization focusing on getting more volunteers out into the wilderness. Today, she still loves to wake up at 10,000 feet in a wilderness area and seeing volunteers continue to protect the wild places.
“I couldn’t have done it without help,” she says. “Federal funding was being held back, and there were less people. I could see that we as volunteers were making a difference trying to keep the wilderness pristine for future generations. That’s the goal.”