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Trail Rhythms is Blazing A New Path for Big Island Environmental Stewards

Trail Rhythms, a local non-profit organization inspired by nature, started its efforts for a cleaner Hawai’i in 2014 and is paving ways (literally) for the way we approach trash clean-up efforts around Hawai’i Island. Founders and husband and wife duo Steve Vujnovich and Renee Caton have been living on the Island for over two decades and have developed a deep passion for the beautiful environment that they enjoy every day. After officially launching in 2016, Trail Rhythms has partnered with various school and volunteer programs to keep Hawai’i’s waterways clean and educate future generations on how to better care of our planet.

For example, each volunteer program teaches the seven “Leave No Trace” principles before heading into the gulches for waterway cleanup, with some programs taking just one today or even extending to up to ten days long. These programs teach these environmental stewards the skills to get into the gulches under the supervision of the Trail Rhythms staff. The Big Island Pulse team recently spoke with Vujnovich about the environmental efforts he and the Trail Rhythms team have made to help keep Hawai’i Island beautiful.

Can you tell us a little bit about how Trail Rhythms started? 

It started out when we explored our gulches and we thought, “Boy, this trash down here can’t happen like this—it needs to be mitigated,” so we decided to go ahead and do something about it. We were determined to do something similar to beach clean-ups, just on a higher scale. We took on the “Leave No Trace” model that was developed back in the ‘70s, when camping really became easy to do and comfortable. So rock climbers, backpackers, etc. started forming relationships with each other to help mitigate the trash left behind by these campers. It starts with a symbiotic relationship between people who love the outdoors.

What was a pivotal point in the growth of the organization that turned it from a passion project into what it is today?

Trail Rhythms evolved organically, it was actually almost a mistake. We originally started to do this project for profit, but we eventually turned into a non-profit that commits one hundred percent of its profits to local and community efforts. This allowed us to tap into the youth by starting homeschool programs and reaching out to the schools. We had no idea it would come this far! 

A lot of participants are coming from mainly the homeschooling programs, and that’s all to the hard work of Krista Graves; she has been instrumental in developing programs. We find that we’re tailoring programs for each group. Every program is different, unique, and important to our efforts.

What is the biggest threat impacting Hawai’i right now, in your opinion?

People dumping trash into these gulches is definitely a huge threat, as we’re noticing that transfer stations are becoming less and less available. It’s really concerning.What makes people think it’s OK to do that? We usually return back to two different main sites to clean up the trash and put up signs deterring people from dumping, but we still end up having to return. The latest thing that we’ve done is install hunting cameras at these sites because the police prefer not to get involved. I’m not even sure if that’s legal, but I’ll take one for the community for a good cause! If no one is giving us answers, we’re going to get ourselves answers.

As far as the types of cleanups that we do, there are a lot of safety procedures involved every time we enter one of these sites. One of the major concerns with performing these cleanups is making sure our volunteers have a certain skill set to get the trash out. We’re even trying to expand our routes and get the state to let us start cleaning up the national parks.

What is the most rewarding experience you’ve had so far with Trail Rhythms?

My wife, Renee, a retired school teacher, puts together the curriculum for Leave No Trace, so definitely getting to work with her everyday. Seeing everyone work as a team is another amazing aspect of the job—just seeing everyone work together and build trust in each other is so rewarding.

Are you hoping to expand Trail Rhythms into other states?

Everything that I learn in my training in other parts of the country, I bring back to Hawai’i. Expanding Trail Rhythms crossed my mind for a split second, but there are a lot of great organizations out in this world that do a great job. I’m open to collaboration with other companies, though!

What is one piece of advice you can give our readers in order to promote a more sustainable way of living?

I recommend taking an online Leave No Trace survey and getting to know the principles of the concept. If everybody could learn what this means, I think that would be instrumental to how people view the environment. Leave No Trace has so many different principles for all kinds of outdoor activities. Just take an hour and read about it, I guarantee it’ll open up people’s eyes. If we can just plant that seed amongst the general public, that would leave a lasting impact. Head to the website, and click on “Trainer Course.” We’re never too old to start learning; I’m 54 and I still continue to learn every day.

All images courtesy of Trail Rhythms.

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