Tragedy and loss are unavoidable. At some point, we will all experience it, struggling to find meaning after trauma. For first responders, both in the city and out in the wilderness, the likelihood they will see a traumatic event is part of their job description. Lacey resident Katja Hurt knows of this firsthand.

Growing up on Vashon Island, Katja was always enjoying life in the great outdoors. She likes to joke that her parents raised her to be an outdoor addict. She was sea kayaking when she was seven, skiing her entire life, and spent the summers white water rafting and exploring the grandiose landscapes of the Northwest. Recently, Katja started climbing with The Mountaineers, expanding her outdoor enthusiast lifestyle and introducing her to friends that would change her life.

Six years ago, Katja became a chaplain helping out on the frontlines with first responders and providing emotional and mental care. When she joined the King County Sheriff’s Department as a chaplain, conversations led to her share that she enjoyed being outdoors, hiking, and ski patrolling, letting her supervisors know that, if needed, she help out as a chaplain if there was ever a disaster or other issue in the backcountry.

“Soon, I was being sent to help out with various situations,” Katja shared. “Rescuers got to know me and started calling me after difficult missions. Soon everyone knew me as ‘the ski patrol chaplain’ or “’the mountain chaplain.’ I started looking into it and found that there were no official mountaineering or climbing chaplains. Seeing such a need, I decided to do something about it.”

Katja and Stephen
Katja with her friend Stephen, one of the reasons that Wilderness Chaplains was created. Photo courtesy: Katja Hurt

Sometimes an event is needed to spur one into action. For Katja, that event came after losing her best friend in a climbing accident on August 14, 2018. The loss of a dear friend was devastating, but through the loss, an inextinguishable flame was ignited. Starting as a flicker through the sadness and pain, the spark became a raging blaze of compassion, caring, and emotional support. While helping herself and others get through her friend’s death, Katja realized how little the outdoors community knew about dealing with trauma and death. It started as a project for my local climbing community and like the flames of a fire, quickly grew bigger and bigger.

The product of these flames of empathy became known as Wilderness Chaplains. The mission of Wilderness Chaplains is to bring education and support to wilderness first responders and the outdoor community. Through community presentations, training, and certifications for those who want to serve as chaplains, family liaisons, care team members, and more to their outdoor community, Wilderness Chaplains is hoping to educate as many people as possible. Through phone consults, helping to find local resources, and even helping to educate a team of crisis intervention specialists who can deploy to a search and rescue or wilderness mission.

The name Wilderness Chaplains may have you wondering about its religious affiliation. It is true that most chaplain groups identify with a particular faith, but Katja’s Wilderness Chaplains doesn’t align with any one faith. Instead, they identify with the outdoor and wilderness culture. Any trained chaplains are taught how to work with all faiths, learning to show tolerance, inclusion, compassion, and care for people from every walk of life.

“I grew up spiritual and not as part of an organized religion,” said Katja. “When I learned that chaplains come from various religions and serve first responders in a non-religious way, I was really drawn to the idea. I’ve run into a lot of people who think that a chaplain will preach at them and try to convert them. I try to explain that preachers and ministers are the ones that preach, and a chaplain is more of an emotional and spiritual first responder. I’ve taken a bold step with Wilderness Chaplains by not requiring a religious affiliation.”

Katja’s work isn’t just limited to the great outdoors. Here in Thurston County, Katja joined the Olympia Police Department and Lacey Fire as a chaplain. When working with the Olympia PD, she works to support the officers and staff who experience trauma in their line of work. As a shift chaplain with Lacey Fire, she responds to calls to help support the community when a traumatic event occurs, talking with community members and first responders after an event. All of this work has helped give her the experience needed to run Wilderness Chaplains.

Katja Hurt Wilderness Chaplains
At training, Katja makes sure everyone gets the support and advice needed. Photo courtesy: Katja Hurt

The need for a group like Wilderness Chaplains became quickly apparent after the community started late last year. Over the winter, several accidents at local ski areas had workers reaching out to Katja to help them deal with the loss of friends, colleagues, and visitors to the mountains. Local hikers turned to Wilderness Chaplains to deal with loss in their lives, and the outdoors community continues to reach out for help when the worst does occur. All around the community, people are reaching out to Wilderness Chaplains and finding that they are greeted with compassion and the skills needed to not only help themselves cope, but to help others in need. Katja’s vision has sparked a wildfire of support and care and is just getting started.

“Right now, all of our funding comes from individual donors,” responded Katja, when asked if there was anything else she wanted readers to know. “We are working on grants and revenue for the following year. Right now, every donation matters and keeps us moving forward. Donations made through the website make a world of difference.”

If you are a part of a responder groups who would like a presentation or training, or support dealing with a traumatic event, or are someone who appears to be in distress, you can reach out to Katja at Wilderness Chaplains. Katja strongly encourages anyone interested in the work they are doing to head to the Wilderness Chaplains website, where you can get the links to interact with her on social media. Contacting Wilderness Chaplains is the best way to stay in the loop for upcoming trainings, requests for volunteers, and hear about new community events. While you may not have any need for Wilderness Chaplains now, you may soon or know someone who does. Reach out, share, and get to know Katja, letting her caring spark ignite something in you.

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