VetsWork: “A Late Start, but Right on Track”

Jesse Part

The Journey of a Mt. Adam’s Institute VetsWork Trails, Heritage, Surveying, all-out Natural Resources Intern—by Jesse Part

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Horseshoe Bluff. Overlooking the Big Muddy River and the Mississippi River floodplain.

I guess I should start by explaining the “late start” portion of the title of this blog. This was the second VetsWork intern position I applied for on the Shawnee National Forest. The first was a position on a trail crew. I was very hopeful given the fact I just graduated with a B.S. in Forestry from Southern Illinois University, and had volunteer experience in trail building. When I received the phone call that they chose someone else for the position because they wanted to train a person from the bottom-up, I was happy for whoever it was because of the experience they would gain, but I was also a bit disheartened. I began to ask myself, “What good is a degree, if it doesn’t even land you an internship?” With a wife and two young children at home, the need for landing some sort of employment weighs heavy on a parent. About two or three weeks later, I received a phone call from Mt. Adams Institute (MAI) about another VetsWork position that would be soon opening on the Shawnee. This position would be starting roughly a month later than the rest. Without hesitation, I told her to sign me up. This time around, I actually got to interview with my soon-to-be supervisors. The interview went well, although it was awkward interviewing via conference call, as I had never experienced that before. A week or so went by and my anticipation grew. My wife had booked us a trip to Las Vegas as a graduation gift, and it was during our stay there that I received the call from Katie. The news was good, I had been offered the position! This news actually stood tall among the other events of our Vegas vacation, and I felt like I was standing on top of the Grand Canyon again as I had been two days prior. Being in Vegas, I had to have a Bloody Mary to celebrate:

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The first week of my internship consisted of a lot of paperwork, both for MAI and the Forest Service. Mary, my supervisor was very welcoming, as well as the other Forest Service staff. We soon took to the field where we would be showing some Heritage sites to personnel from Southern Illinois University Archaeology Department. As we made our way down an equestrian trail through a stand of eastern white pine, suddenly an open area littered with sandstone, limestone, and daffodils came into view. What we were standing on was the remnants of an old home foundation that was in the process of excavation by the Forest Service. One of the most noticeable features of this area was the intact well that still holds water.

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Well at an old home site in the Shawnee National Forest

The next stop of the day was a prehistoric heritage site. We followed a trail along a bluff line through a mature oak/hickory forest to a large cave. Inside the cave, chert flakes could readily be found. The cave was massive and noticeably cooler than the outside. I could imagine a family of Native Americans inhabiting this cave centuries ago.

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Cave where prehistoric artifacts and by-products have been found

Aside from my normal work activities in Heritage with Mary and Heather, I was able to work some with the trail crew, and then the survey crew. Work on the trail crew consisted primarily of clearing any debris blocking the trail. Most of the time we were in a designated wilderness area, so no power tools were allowed. Towards the end of a trail loop one day, we encountered something not even the tourist brochures would tell you about. During part of the year, this trail is open to horse-back riders and there is an open area in the middle of the forest right off the trail that appeared to be some kind of area where riders camp. Inhabiting this camp as a permanent resident is what appears to be a hillbilly scarecrow named Paco; however, some call him Pedro. Standing at about 4’8”, Paco or Pedro overlooks the camp, beer in one hand, walking stick in the other. Throughout the years, hikers and riders have adorned this guy with their own taste of fashion. Looking at this guy, I can’t help but think to myself how creepy it would be running into him on a night hike.


I received word from my supervisor that the plan for my permanent project had been laid out and I was able to begin. I was to report to the Supervisor’s Office in Harrisburg the following Monday morning to be briefed on the project. Shortly after my briefing, I was to head out to Garden of the Gods observation trail, a popular tourist site and featured on the Illinois quarter, to “get my feet wet” with the rating system. The purpose of this project was to utilize a rating system for the trails on the Shawnee that would gauge difficulty levels for equestrians, mountain bikers, and hikers. Characteristics like grade, tread stability, and technical features such as bridges and natural obstacles were to determine a trail’s overall difficulty, and this would someday be available to the public. What started at a local recreational hotspot, would soon blossom into a project that would take me to some of the most remote, yet beautiful places I never dreamed were right in my backyard.

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Some Wildlife Encounters along the Way

6A random albino rat in the forest. I’m guessing someone dumped it.

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A Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen).

He was sunbathing right in the middle of the trail. Luckily I had my eyes peeled, or I might have stepped on it and been bitten.

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