What a year this has been so far! Throughout my internship, I have been exposed to so many new learning opportunities. My position had a slow start, but as my qualifications began stacking up, so did the availability of work I was able to do. Continue Reading…
Some people are good at marketing, landscaping, masonry, finance, etc., and some people are good at communication, organization and all things administrative. Hello, my name is Heather Vaughan. I entered the VetsWork AmeriCorps program in April of 2016 in conjunction with my retirement from the Air Force. The program supported my transition back into the civilian world and was a wonderful catalyst for career transitioning. During the last 15 years of my military career I had been in an office the majority of the time, doing shift work, as required by my jobs. The VetsWork internship sounded like a good opportunity to break away from the desk and return to nature and the outdoor experience I had grown to miss. I underestimated just how outdoorsy it would require me to be though. The daily tick checks and hornet scares definitely put a damper on my desire to go hiking and exploring during my own personal time. And, to my surprise, I missed the office. I missed planning and organizing for events, interacting with people, and generally helping out through the administrative skills I had gained over a lifetime. Luckily my supervisor and Mt. Adams Institute program coordinator recognized that I was much more of an asset manned with a computer and telephone than I was with a Pulaski and radio.
The internship gave me a great perspective about what I’m good at; communicating with the public, planning, and organizing. Of course I could be good at surveying, trail maintenance, fire suppression support and all the recreation technician jobs the forestry has to offer, but I prefer to work at something that comes natural to me. That is why I was very happy to take a job as a customer service representative for the Forest Service. Advocating for the environment while assisting the public is right up my alley and the VetsWork internship really allowed me to explore other career options while still being true to my skill set. Not everyone has to be a fire fighter or recreation tech. I’m very happy with a new career in which I will still be able to enjoy nature at my leisure and engage with the public on behalf of the environment. This last year I learned, and wanted to share with others, that you need to be true to your character, recognize what you enjoy doing, and just go for it.
As I sit here writing my final blog five days before Christmas, I can’t help but be amazed at how fast this year as a VetsWork AmeriCorps member has passed. With only a month and some change left in my term, it seems like yesterday I was in Las Vegas receiving the phone call with great news. What started as a job with little or no experience and only a degree has blossomed into an invaluable learning experience that I am so fortunate to have had.
Not only have I gained more experience in the natural resources field, I have undergone the learning experience that is the federal application and hiring process. Positions have come up here and there that I have applied to through USAJobs. A quote comes to mind from a forestry graduate student of my school (Southern Illinois University) when I was volunteering to plant native trees in a city park. He said, “It seems like every time I apply to a federal job, it’s always that 100th application that gets through”. As a student with the dream of work someday, this was rather discouraging. However, as I have learned here, there are people who can vouch for you based on your work ethic, dedication, and integrity; who can make that process less cumbersome and more successful. Although I haven’t yet been picked up for a position, I really get the feeling they care when the Forest Supervisor tells me to add him as a reference, and the Deputy District Ranger asks me if I would share my resume and transcripts. My point is: they really do look out for you here, and that is a good feeling.
One other bit of good news, and a relief cushion, is my forest has found the funds to keep me on as a VetsWork member for another year—in the event I don’t receive a permanent position. This is really good news to me because I can continue to build my resume and gain experience without being pinned down with a single, dedicated title.
Since my last blog, I have continued some of the projects I have been working on throughout my internship. Trail rating has been put on hold at the moment because we bought a tablet to take trail surveys, and they are in the process of putting a program called eTRACS on it. eTRACS is basically a software tool used to collect trail survey data that can then be uploaded into Natural Resources Manager (NRM or INFRA). This will be used by me on the trail, and my rating spreadsheet will be on the tablet as opposed to a paper version. Although trail rating is on hiatus, that hasn’t kept me out of the woods. I continue to go out and conduct wilderness monitoring.
I finished the recreation site analysis project I had been working on during the summer. Now our INFRA database can be updated with the proper data from each recreation site on the forest. I also became wildland fire chainsaw certified since my last blog. This consisted of two days in the class and one in the field to be graded on ability to fell, buck, and limb trees. Although it was really cold that day, I had a great time. One of the biggest additions to my experience list is working with our Lands Department. Here I have gained experience in special use permits and easements, inspecting permit sites, and even attended a walk-around on a property that the Forest Service is in the process of purchasing. It’s really interesting looking through some of the old land documents and microfiche. Some date back to the late 1800’s when times were simpler and people had a different, yet cordial way of speaking.
In disbelief that this year is almost over, I reflect back on everything I’ve learned and the people I have met. This has been nothing but a good, wholesome experience. Now that I am at the end, I have the chance to do it again, pursue a permanent position, or anything else; that is the fork in my trail. The sky’s the limit really. I would like to thank everyone here on the Shawnee National Forest for taking me in and being so welcoming, as well as the staff at Mt. Adams Institute for structuring such a great program for us military veterans. Sure some complain about the pay, but the experience both professional and personal make up for a limited budget in so many ways.
How I remember field trips
When I think back to school field trips, I remember the bus ride as being the best part, closely followed by just not being in the classroom. Didn’t matter the reason. A couple that stick out in my memory were to the Police station and the Nature Preserve. I believe that one of the goals of a field trip is to give the kids a positive memory that will encourage them to return. (Maybe except the Police Station unless they become Officers.) I am confident that this field trip we prepared for the West Louisville fourth grade elementary class would be one they find the inspiration and desire to return to.
Preparing for 64 fourth graders
When I heard that the head count of the fourth graders was to be 64, my mind thought the worst. We held the field trip at German Ridge Recreation Area on the Hoosier National Forest. The area has a small pond, picnic shelter, trails, campgrounds and other standard amenities. I envisioned these kids running all over the forest, jumping in the water, skinning their knees, sick kids, kids that have to use the bathroom all the time, crying, screaming, laughing, basically utter mayhem. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We organized them into 3 smaller groups by marking their hands in a certain color. Their behavior was outstanding. No doubt, due to their respect of their teachers and chaperones. They all seemed genuinely interested in what we had to teach them and show them.
We had three stations that the kiddos would rotate through: fish nets, wildland fire truck, and a nature walk down a trail. I worked with the fish biologist and in preparation we set up 3 fyke nets the day prior. The nets extend from the bank towards the center of the pond, guiding fish as they cruise the shoreline into a series of funneling nets that the fish can’t find their way out of. We were extremely successful with many different species including: redear sunfish, bluegill, green sunfish, largemouth bass, channel catfish, and a few turtles including a monster snapping turtle which the kids talked about the rest of the day. We passed around the different fish for the kids to touch, hold and look at. At the fire truck station the kids sprayed water and learned about the benefits of prescribed burns and how we fight wild fires. The Nature walk introduced these children to different types of trees and plants found in our forests.
After all the excitement we put the kids through, we let them eat lunch and loaded them back on the bus. All of that plus the brisk fresh air of October, they were out like lights as soon as they drove away. We were all exhausted. The teachers were thankful for a bus full of sleeping children all the way back to Louisville. Overall I think this field trip was a total success! I really feel like we got them excited about being outside and enjoying the land that belongs to them. I’m sure they will make this a reoccurring event for this school out of West Louisville. If only we could get some local schools to participate in their own backyard.
As my time in the VetsWork program approaches closure I find myself in a reflective state. I am at a point where I am trying to quantify my experience and figure out what my next step should be. One of the most important lessons learned while working with the Forest Service is that this land and its resources belongs to all of us. Agencies like the Forest Service exist to manage, but it is up to all of us to ensure sustainability. Why? Why is sustainability so important? Well, to paraphrase a popular sentiment: the world doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to our children. Therein lies my desired path forward. Continue Reading…
The last time I had written one of these blogs I was preparing for my transfer to the Crescent Ranger District in July. Now as I write my final blog of the year, I have less than a month left in the program. It’s gone by fast to say the least. Someone who does not have a passion for natural resource management cannot last in a program as demanding as this one. But, if you do have that passion and can somehow make it to the end, there are ample opportunities for you afterwards.
Many have already left this program with job offers, some have been made offers afterwards, and others are looking forward to continuing their education in the New Year. If someone were to tell you this program offers nothing but a monthly paycheck below minimum wage, they’d be lying to you. Putting job offers and prospects to the side, this program allowed me to gain invaluable on the job training with the Forest Service. I have acquired new qualifications that only seasoned employees can gain, and yet I have never technically been employed by the federal government. I have been to the majority of all our recreation sites on the forest, while many seasonal employees are usually restricted to working on their designated districts. I have had the opportunity of meeting new people I am happy to call co-workers and friends. I have gained the vast knowledge of the outdoors surrounding my community in Central Oregon. All in all, I come out of this with a better understanding of where I am currently and where I want to go in the future.
Confidence is the feeling you have before walking into a situation without fully understanding it. When I started this program in February, I knew very little, if anything at all, about what was in store for me and where I was going. As General George Patton said, “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week”, and with that aphorism, I went for it. I jumped on an opportunity that looked promising, and I had nothing to rely on but my gut feeling. As I look back at this year, on both professional and personal aspects, this has been a very good year for me. I have surpassed my own self-expectations and come out of this program as a better person.
For future interns of this program, I pass on the same advice I was given when I started that I did not always follow. Take the initiative. Don’t wait for anyone to set goals for you, only you can do that. Don’t be afraid to reach across the hall and befriend a co-worker not in your department, you’ll need them someday. Be very outspoken. General Patton also said “If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking”; you’ll encounter this on a daily basis when working in bureaucracy. Walk in to every situation with confidence, and yet don’t be afraid to ask questions. When given a task to complete, show with proper certainty that you will complete it, look to others for guidance; but the course on how you will achieve it is ultimately yours to form and follow.
On a closing note, the greatest reward this program has brought me was the reestablished faith in the men and women who served, and who continue to serve this country. After serving in Afghanistan and the years that followed it, I became disenfranchised with the state of our country. I sunk into the same depression that has become an epidemic with our military veterans. We carry a great burden that the rest of society does not. We have been faced with many truths that some will never see in their lifetimes. We are bound to a binding and resilient moral code others are not. The future of this country lies within our veterans. We all have made sacrifices most civilians will choose to never make. Some veterans have left this Earth and can no longer tell their stories. We have an unwritten oath to continue their legacy so they may never be forgotten. It is our responsibility to carry on the fight and make this country a better one for them and for all of us.
The summer field season has been a blur of activity, and although I have periodically checked up on other blogs, composing my next contribution to the Mt. Adams blog has been one of the furthest things from my mind. In consideration of these facts, I present to you a photo blog of heritage work on the Monongahela National Forest.
The final photos are before and after shots of a project I had the opportunity of leading. Although it’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite project of the summer, this vegetation cleanup project was hands down the most fulfilling. Not only did this put to active use the chainsaw training I had received earlier in the summer, it also provided a unique partnership opportunity with a group that has opposed other aspects of forest service work in the region.
In other words, we did not let our difference of opinions preclude us from working together on common goals. Although this is wisdom that can always bear repeating, it seems even timelier given the current political climate in the country, and was definitely heartening to me. Now with just over three months left in my internship, it’s time to see about turning these experiences into a job.
The first advice my supervisor ever gave me was to “Never separate yourself from your food”. While I attributed this partly to her being six months pregnant, I didn’t give it much thought until we made a quick trip to Linville Falls, which turned into a four hour endeavor including a waterfall hike. I probably could have enjoyed the scenic route a lot more if I had taken more than almonds and wasn’t hangry. Needless to say, I quickly developed a habit of always having food on my person for the day-to-day adventures the internship took me on.
Painting land lines with a back pack full of snacks.
Painting landlines, doing trail maintenance, and all the other responsibilities that came along with making the forest people friendly felt like drudgery the first few months. And I will say that I had a major hang-up at the beginning of my internship with the majority of the work being done so that people would have more and easier access to Federal land. But I learned everything we did was to keep people from destroying what they eagerly wanted to see; waterfalls, overlooks, wilderness, etc. All those functions of mowing, brushing, blazing, and weed-eating made for wider trails, foot bridges, and the maintained campsites that helped guide the community into the areas that they would create the least impact on the environment.
Old Catawba Falls crossing
New Catawba Falls footbridge
My fellow forest service members have talked about how, probably because of social media, the amount of people coming into the forest has increased dramatically in the last few years. This is good and bad. People want to connect with nature, share it with their children, but at the same time it’s hard to practice Leave No Trace when you have to step off the trail to let a family of 10 pass you by. It’s all about making a sustainable ecotourism environment, though. If people are not connected with nature then they are not going to support it…which in the long run means bye-bye funding. This has been a very important lesson for me. So I decided not to kick everyone out of the woods and after a long summer of campground maintenance, trash collection and mowing, I am happy to share the notion that everyone should be in the forest. People NEED to experience it for their own well-being and the investment future generations can help make in it.
Hopefully after my internship I can continue to support the interaction between communities and their environments in the most economical and conservative way.
Over 1000 hours in and we are a little more than one month away from the end of the internship. The summer has been somewhat of a blur, but I am happy to announce that the job search has commenced and a few of those positions have been referred to the hiring manager. Just waiting on the phone call (s)… In the meantime, Tony has in store TONS of back country overnight trips which will test my physical strength, endurance, and definitely the knees.
Hells Canyon in early summer with a thunderstorm rolling in.
The views have been amazing and the people I’ve connected with are becoming bittersweet because I know I’ll have to leave soon to pursue my career and education. Let the good times roll, as the song says. I’m working hard, but hardly feel its effects as it is work that I am genuinely enjoying. The training experiences have been phenomenal. One included learning how to restore and repair historic windows.
Historic Window Training
The number one most treasured thing about the internship is being able to get a first-hand glimpse at the work involved in this Archeology position with the Forest Service. I can pick and choose the sides I like and the sides I do not like, and am able to make a clearer decision on the next steps I’ll be taking. Today I will be taking steps to help my strength and stamina for next week’s back-country trip (I’m just going on a 2 hour hike after work). Next month I will be taking tons of GIS classes to help grow my knowledge base in the technology needed for this position. Next year I hope to enroll at Adams State University for their Master’s program in Cultural Resource Management.
Mormon Flat Cabin Circa estimated early 1900s
My supervisor, Tony, has been an awesome mentor and I cannot thank him enough for putting up with all my questions. Which reminds me, for those future interns: Ask as many questions as you can possibly think of! I’m getting quite comfortable with mapping, the pace and compass method, using GPS technology, and my overall map reading skills have definitely seen some improvement. On the personal side, I was able to receive guests this summer which helped boost my mood ten-fold. Seeing familiar faces and introducing them to a little slice of heaven was definitely needed!
Perhaps it’s true that time, akin to Siddhartha’s eponymously patient river, ever flows in some boundless, ineffable cycle. Certainly, we find ourselves at a happy confluence, a coda in a different key, a second meeting made possible by the lambent glow of screens, the busy flurry of electrons, and the abstruse tangles of coding. Hello again, friends near, far, and yet unmet. I write to you as steam curls slowly upwards from a fresh cup of coffee and a steady October rain patters softly over Columbia National Wildlife Refuge outside Othello, Washington.
Here, under clouds of bruised pearl, sagebrush and stone form broad character strokes over a rugged canvas carved by the unfathomable wrath of the ancient Missoula floods. Bold umber buttes rise in sheer columns, looming over the golden grassed landscape yet dwarfed in turn by an unending arc of storm ridden horizon. The sky is its own country, fraught with cumulonimbus titans that billow and clash and swirl like the chaotic pallet of an artist in love with the color grey. The beauty of Columbia Refuge is in the severity of its features, in the stark lines of migrating birds, the lonesome song of coyotes calling through the canyons in the gathering dusk, and the broken bones of bare basalt that thrust forth from the earth.
With the dwindling days of the field season I plant native willows whose boughs will one-day bend to trail in the rippled rills that meander in the refuge low lands. The restoration of native trees and shrubs will improve habitat for the wealth of fauna that resides at Columbia; indeed, the lilting cries of marshland birds urge on excavations and swell in lullabies for roots newly nestled in silty soil. The labor is ongoing, but when completed, more than three thousand plants will have found new homes, each serving as a small benediction to the roughhewn grace of an ecosystem I have grown to cherish.
The native plant propagation program at Columbia is but one of several ecological projects and studies I have had the honor to participate in during my tenure with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Even as I write of it, my term as a Public Lands Steward with the Mt. Adams Institute is rapidly drawing to a close, the hours passing like so many autumn leaves falling from a wet black branch. I began my AmeriCorps position months ago with a simple idea, and should you attend to nothing else amidst my maudlin ramblings, faithful reader, mark this well, for it is important, and as close to the truth of things as I’m likely to come. The idea was a dream; and the dream was of a world made better, at least in some small way, by my service. I am proud to have begun a path towards that dream; proud of the sway of willows in the wind, the splash of Oregon Spotted frogs, and the ruffle of Greater Sandhill Crane feathers on a long flight South. I am also thankful; deeply thankful for my stalwart coworkers, for the support of Mt. Adams Institute, and above all for every single moment on this strange and wonderful earth.
As the season is coming to an end I am reflecting back to the last five months of living and working in the backcountry. Through this summer’s hard work I have grown a lot as a person. It didn’t come easy, but with some trial and error I can safely say there is a lot of life lessons I will be taking away from this Public Lands Stewards AmeriCorps experience.
The first life lesson came to me on a cold, 35 mph windy morning. My co-worker Azrael and I were setting up the ranger base camp at Lyman Lake in early July. There was still lots of snow on the ground, but it was melting fast. Two days prior our boss had hiked up with us showing us around, telling us different projects to work on and where to set up camp. The ranger camp consists of a large cook tent and a small 2 person sleeping tent. They are about 500 feet away from one another and to get from one tent to another we had to walk across a snow field. Our boss informed us there was a creek somewhere under the snow and showed us a long route to get from one tent to the other. Fast forward 2 days, our boss left us to finish setting up camp and acclimating ourselves to the area. It was 7:15 a.m. when I emerged from my tent, still half asleep with no coffee in my system I made the cold trek to the cook tent. It was very windy, and I see Azrael with all his strength trying to keep the large tent from blowing away because we did not stake down the tent properly. Mistake #1. I feel frantic and want to rush over to help him. The snow by now is melted by 50% and a direct trail to the cook tent is SLIGHTLY uncovered. It’s not the route that our boss showed us, but in my mind I should trust the trail, right? Wrong! Little did I know this path was created by previous rangers to get water from the creek. I am now thigh high in freezing cold water, in my boots and work clothes, trying to jump out on the snowy edge. Once I pull myself out, I unhappily walk up to Azrael thinking he saw the whole disaster, but he didn’t. Instead I hear “About time you got up! Its hurricane winds out here and the tent is ripping!” In the calmest voice I could manage I scream back “I just fell in the creek!” But I knew there was no time to waste. The only thing worse than trying to stake down a tent with no feeling in my fingers and toes would be going back to the office and explaining to our boss how we managed to break a tent on the first day of being unsupervised. So with soaking clothes we staked it down, managing only to put a few tears in the rain fly. An hour later I was finally able to put dry clothes on and warm up with some hot coffee. I can honestly say it was the worst morning of the whole summer, but some valuable life lessons were learned.
#1 – Always Listen to your boss when they show you a route to take. Even if you think you know a better way, most likely you don’t.
#2 – Don’t assume social paths have your best interest.
#3 – Don’t take short cuts
#4 – Always bring an extra pair of socks
#5 – Make sure to have coffee before making decisions in the morning.
The second major incident happened a few days later at the Holden Village ranger cabin. The project was too chop large logs into smaller pieces for the wood burning stove. Once everything was chopped you re-stack the logs in an organized pile next to the cabin. Easy enough. A coworker and I started the re-piling task, she would toss me the wood and I would stack it. I decided I didn’t need to wear my hard hat because I have stacked wood at home and never wore one, why would I now? About 30 minutes in we got in a groove, toss, catch, stack, toss, catch, stack. We got it down so well there wasn’t even a pause between each toss, leaving little room for error. Then it happened. A log slipped between my hands and fell on the ground. I should have let it go, picked it up later knowing that in a few short seconds another log would be flying towards me. But being mission driven, I had to pick it up. As I bend over I hear “JESSSSSSY!!” BAM. A small log hit my skull. I look at my co-worker, her face says it all. “What is my head bleeding?” I started to ask… but before I can finish my sentence blood comes rushing down my face. Luckily we were near a well-stocked first aid kit and I had a wilderness first responder tending to my wound. Another co-worker walks up to the situation and shakes his head. “Jessy, Jessy, Jessy. No PPE?” (PPE stands for Personal Protective Equipment, A.K.A my bright yellow hard hat.) Thankfully, all I got was a bump, a small cut and another life lesson learned.
#6- Always wear your PPE!
#7 – No matter how monotonous a task is always pay attention.
#8 – Don’t be afraid to tell your co-worker to slow down.
#9- Listen to your gut instinct. If your gut tells you to let the log go and pick it up later… pick it up later.
#10- Always carry a first aid kit.
I could go on and on with more stories from this summer and how I learned a few things, but I will keep it brief. Other major life lessons were, always bring 2 watches when you are rangering alone, especially if one of the watches was only $9 from Walmart. If you don’t, you might get really good at telling the time by the sun. Always bring your rain gear in your day pack, you never know when a storm decides to roll in for a whole work day. If you don’t, you will end up with soaked work clothes for a few days. Always double check you have everything packed in your backpack before you leave for a 9-day hitch in the backcountry. If you don’t you might forget your stove and have to eat uncooked cold oatmeal and coffee for breakfast every morning. Never leave your backpack in a rat infested shelter in the woods. If you do, your pack might smell like sour urine for the rest of the work week. And if you ever happen to find yourself wearing a Smokey Bear costume for a Fourth of July parade, while sitting on a bench in a back of a pick-up truck. Listen to the driver when they tell you not to stand up. If you don’t listen, the driver might slam on the breaks, making you fall behind the bench, on your back, with your feet and hands straight up in the air.
As you can see I have learned a lot this summer and will always remember these experiences. Glacier Peak Wilderness, you will always hold a special place in my heart.
Thanks AmeriCorps. Jessy out.
With only one month left in the season, time is beginning to move very fast. My time as a Public Lands Stewards – AmeriCorps member at the Entiat Ranger District has made this one of the best summers of my life. There aren’t many other jobs where you can spend 40 hours/week (or more) outdoors. After working with the Forest Service this summer, it will be hard to ever get accustomed to living and working in the city, and frankly I don’t plan on ever doing that again.
Since my last blog post not many things have changed but the weather. It has become very frigid in the mountains which represents the end of the season. Over the last two months much of my time has been based out of the Lake Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness and within the Methow Valley. My work schedule has consistently been 4 nights and 5 days in the backcountry since the beginning of June. As far as my daily schedule, there have been a lot more encounters with hikers and bikers. The difference between the beginnings of the season versus now is the amount of people, and the amount of questions they have to ask. I now can distinguish between hikers from the city vs. local. The main difference is the preparation amongst people during the hiking season. Our job is help people who are new to the area and really have no sense of direction. In preparation for going into the backcountry, I know it is important to bring extra maps and know the area that you are headed too. You need to know how to get around so you can guide others who are disorganized. I have recently met a lot of hikers from the Seattle area who are new to hiking. It is great running into these types of people who are eager to get in shape and see new things, and in the end, I become their guide in the backcountry.
I can honestly say that the area is some of the most beautiful country I have ever been in. The main areas of focus within this valley have been on the Foggy Dew Trail and Crater Creek Trail. These trails thrive with mountain and dirt bikers, which has enticed me to buy my own adventure mobile. To say the least, this area has been very busy the last few months.
In the Entiat Ranger District, the same conditions are present, but the users are different. Dirt bikers everywhere! Along the Mad River trail seems to be a very popular spot; the rangers cabin is the selling point for me. During Labor Day weekend Forest and myself encountered over 50 groups of bikers! So far, that is a record. Also while we were there, a 100K running race took place. There is so much going on in the woods!
Upper Eagle Lake
October 21 marks the end of my time with Mt. Adams Institute, AmeriCorps, and the Entiat Ranger District. I am sad to see that date come, but trust and believe this is not the end for my forest endeavors…
Upper Eagle Lake
Thus far I’ve had a wild and meaningful ride being partnered with the United States Forest Service through the Mt. Adams Institute, VetsWork AmeriCorps program. I have participated and played many vital roles in a wide variety of tasks and projects. Whether it be clearing trail on a national trail system, and almost getting bit by a snake, or mowing wildlife opening with heavy machinery and having the chance to observe bears and how they interact in the wild.
These are just some of the many projects that I have been a part of, it is never a dull moment and the opportunities across my district have been abundant. The training opportunities that I have had have helped greatly and those coupled with my practical hands on experience no doubt are going to make me competitive for future positions with the agency. Positions in various career fields that I never imagined could be possible when starting my journey with VetsWork program.
Nothing like canoeing through a swamp. For our service project this year, myself and the rest of this regions VetsWork AmeriCorps interns partnered with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Ullin, Ill. After arrival at headquarters, introductions and paperwork, we were taken to a portion of the refuge located at the Cache River State Natural Area. Before beginning our scheduled projects, the refuge biologist and 2 AmeriCorps volunteers wanted to give us a tour of the swamp by canoe to teach us a bit about the refuge. So awesome! We were educated about the refuge history, current conditions, swamp ecosystems, wildlife, and got to see the state champion Bald Cypress.
Having only seen one swamp before, I thought they all looked the same: muddy, murky, and unhealthy. The Cache River swamp however, was actually very healthy and looked like it too!
The swamp is filled with a tiny bright green plant that floats on top the water called Duck Weed which provide food for a variety of ducks (hence the name). Bald Cypress grow tall throughout the swamp with their knees rising above the water level.
The knees help stabilize the trees in the soft mud. The water is very clean, clear, cool to the touch, and Button Bush is abundant everywhere. Here and there you will see homemade bird houses for Blue Winged Teal and other bird species to use. Asian Carp may randomly jump out of the water when startled by our canoes. That’s crazy! I’ve heard of ‘flying’ fish before and it’s true for this refuge. During our tour, a few carp did jump out of the water while passing by and one did hit the back of the canoe I was in. This swamp is great and I recommend a trip through it for anyone visiting the refuge.
After that, we headed over to the refuge warehouse area to begin our projects. One intern helped patch a hole in the roof due to a flue from a wood burning stove while the rest of us gathered an array of different supplies, tools, and equipment and re-organized them in another location. Also, we moved several large metal sheets and several large metal posts to a safer storage area. This service project I think was a good one and in a very pretty area of the state. All those we met and worked with from the refuge were very kind and helpful. I’ve always liked having the POD meetings throughout the internship because of possibilities just like this one. They are designed for service and education but are also be very enjoyable.
In a strange series of fortunate events, my wife and I are moving off the Mt. Adams Ranger District after two incredible years in a 1932 Ranger Assistant cabin built by the very capable young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s a dream cabin without a doubt, but finding our own place has been a goal of ours knowing that we’d love to stay in the area after my last internship. We knew moving out of this Forest Service cabin would be bittersweet and have soaked up each day enjoying Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter in all their Cascadian majesty.
After three years in the VetsWork program I’ve exhausted AmeriCorps’ 4 term limit, having also been a member of the Public Lands Stewards program in 2013. Through the Mt. Adams Institute I have served in the the Mt. Hood National Forest, Gifford Pinchot Headquarters and the Mt. Adams Ranger District. In each position I had the pleasure of exploring local hikes, getting to know the communities and creating great memories with my wife, coworkers and friends. This current position here in Trout Lake, Washington has been the luminous cherry on top of the mountain and now we hope to create our own place, although temporary, where we can continue to work & play in this valley of dreams. I’d say more about it, but I’d hate for people to have a romantic sense of this place without knowing the work required to be here. I love it for many lofty reasons, but also because of the hard work and the great people this environment creates. Its a trade off of struggles living so close to nature versus living in a city. There’s no traffic or buildings obscuring the open view of the horizon, but there’s also no public transportation, major stores, fast food, movie theaters or music venues (or lots of people). The solitude is wonderful, if you enjoy your own company. If you don’t, you could go a lil stir crazy, especially in the Winter.
To me, the hard work it takes to be in the forest year round is just too much fun and so rewarding, I don’t know how I could ever go back to a city. Thankfully we have been offered a very unique opportunity to reside in a stretch of land on the Washington side of the Columbia, just as close to both my wife and I’s workplaces.
So whats so special about this place? It’s almost completely off-grid; No power, century-old spring-fed water and no cell service at all! This can be daunting for some, but for me it makes me smile just thinking about it.
The past several months we have been preparing for this move in big ways. I purchased a sweet little 1997 red Mazda truck to haul wood and handle light amounts of snow. I didn’t think I would ever fall in love with a truck, but with a tape deck and the soundtrack from the movie Stand By Me, I feel like a time-traveler. If you haven’t seen the movie (and you should) it was filmed in a small town north of Eugene, called Brownsville (Castle Rock in the film). What Ive been feeling is a kind of nostalgia for a place I’ve never been, for an era not my own. Imagine crossing old bridges, hauling wood to an off-grid cabin and blasting this old tune. Good times.
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When I don’t have rainbows and unicorn filling my head with what the winter will be like, I imagine the complete opposite.
So I also now have an old snowmobile and am still piling up as much wood as possible. We have an old propane stove, a new propane fridge all with new gas lines, regulator, gauges and shut of valves. We’ll store lots of water, but the spring apparently works through Winter. Currently Ive been building our outhouse which about as happy as I can get working on a poop throne. Ive loved outhouses way before I started cleaning them for the Forest Service. In fact theres a great little book called The Vanishing American Outhouse which comically details all the problems of indoor plumbing (acoustical mainly) and how some of the best ideas came from sitting in outhouses! Ha!
All the materials for everything we build at this place have mainly come from the Rebuild-It Center in Hood River. They’ve got it all and its cheap! Otherwise there’s a lot of old lumber on the property that we are taking advantage of.
A huge bit of progress was getting a new phone line dug and connected, so now we are spoiled with that and limited internet. It took some patience and thankfully my supervisors allowed me to work my schedule around the installation.
Its a humble little cabin and while many think, “Wow, you’re going to live in there?!”… I am encouraged by so many who remind me that they have lived in cabins like this and even with a few kiddos!
Living with less, pulling myself through the eye of a needle, is exactly what most of my heroes have done or did through their best years.
One Mans Wilderness by Richard Proenneke is another inspiring read (The film adaptation is called Alone in the Wilderness). In it he journals his adventure of building a log cabin at the age of fifty in the Alaskan Wilderness and would go on to live there for 30 some-odd years in peace and harmony, only leaving when hauling water from a frozen lake became too difficult. From his writings you hear of the awesome beauty of his new home, the solitude, seasons, but also the effort put into being where your heart calls.
With this new home we’ll be steeped in nature and learning valuable practical skills that will not only benefit my work with the Forest Service, but as Richard Proennekke said, [quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]”(Our) dream is a dream no longer.”[/quote]