It has been barely over a month since I began the internship with Mt. Adams Institute. After spending a winter in Bozeman, MT, I became accustomed to so many luxuries that I didn’t realize how detached I was becoming to the natural world around me. I slept in a comfy bed every night in my own room. I had a little house that I was able to turn into my hideout from the world. It had a kitchen, sofas, Internet connection, running water, heat, and virtually everything I could ever want. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of these things, I still value them greatly, but I had no reason to leave. No reason to lay out under the stars, talk to strangers, go to a new place, or put myself in any kind of uncomfortable situation. The greatest thing I have gained through the Mt. Adams Institute internship over this past month was a reintroduction to being in dynamic and challenging environments.
Some rough statistics from my experience as a volunteer wilderness ranger thus far:
- Days into the program – 34
- Nights spent under a roof – 8
- Shooting stars seen – 20+
- Miles of trail hiked – 80+
- Trees cut with a crosscut saw – 19
- Bears seen – 3
I find these stats profoundly comforting. A bed has become a foreign comfort. Camping has just become the norm and so many aspects of life have been drastically simplified. Finding a place to sleep, pulling out the sleeping bag, and turning what some folks call “roughing it” into a homey, thoughtless regime is now an entirely stress-free experience. I am more comfortable looking up at the unconcealed night sky atop a couple of roots and rocks, than being sucked into a feathery bed by 800-threadcount sheets. I have reassessed my own ability to handle difficult situations, I remembered what it’s like to act on the fly and it’s exhilarating and hard to not enjoy. No place to sleep tonight? No problem. Need to hike 20 miles to get to where I’m going? No problem. Need to remove this 2-ton, 60-foot tree from the trail? No problem. It’s funny to think how so much has changed since I began this AmeriCorps program a month ago.
So beyond my own selfish gains from this experience, I have found great satisfaction in the work that I am doing with the Forest Service in Chelan. My work involves clearing fallen trees from the trail, removing rocks, brushing overgrown trails, maintaining campsites, and especially talking with visitors about the very special wilderness that we are experiencing together. It takes no effort to make these interactions educational and enjoyable because of the natural curiosity and excitement that develops when out in the woods with nothing, but minimal necessities and untrammeled (mostly) lands.
There has been one project that I have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of. A log bridge crossing a hard-to-cross creek was washed out during a major event near the Sawtooth Wilderness. To deter dangerous crossings for visitors, the Forest Service decided to replace the bridge and I was lucky enough to be a part of it. Coincidentally, I have a degree in civil engineering and had a decent amount of experience in designing and implementing bridge projects in hard to access areas. My supervisor went over all the design plans with me and we were able to discuss the nitty-gritty difficulties that come with implementing a bridge in the wilderness, since the practices become a bit old fashioned. It was incredible to tie in my past experiences to what I am currently doing; I was not expecting that when I signed up for this.
We went to the field and began work on the bridge abutments. The goal was to assess both sides of the planned bridge site, excavate the area, build Gabion walls as supports, and install them in order for the log to be flown in (which will happen a couple weeks from now). The work was equally challenging mentally as it was physically. For two days we did nothing, except move hundreds of rocks ranging from five to five hundred pounds. The engineering process initiated as we installed the Gabion walls. Using rope, levels, precise measurements, quick sketches in the dirt to convey ideas, and notepad calculations we were able to construct a bridge support on both sides of the heavy flowing creek that was almost perfectly level with each other (we were off by just barely an inch). I was astounded with how efficiently and effectively out team was able to take on such a challenging task.
After the work was done, I was able to reflect on the project as a whole. I was a part of building this log bridge that will hopefully remain in this forest for decades to come. Hundreds of people will use it to access the beauty that this area has to offer. Whether or not I come back to this area years from now, I will know that I have had a lasting touch that contributes to peoples’ enjoyment of the outdoors.
At the end of the day, I am just profoundly grateful to Mt. Adams Institute, the Forest Service, and the great outdoors itself for giving me such an important experience. I reopened myself to the world around me and feel returned to the earth. I have an expanded capacity in dealing with any challenge that confronts me. I no longer respond to difficulties with stress, but with excitement and an open mind. I am happy, healthy, and reinvigorated.