VetsWork: Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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VetsWork: All Good Things Must Come To An End – A Story of Success         

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I write this with an unusual mixture of sadness and excitement. It’s a weird feeling to think that this will be my final blog for the Mt. Adams Institute, as my time in the program will soon come to an abrupt end.

It seems like yesterday that my husband, Jim, and I made the move in February from bustling Champaign, Illinois to rural Doniphan, Missouri in search of “A Better Beginning.” Since I began service on the Mark Twain National Forest in March, it has been a whirlwind. Over the past 6 months, I have had opportunity to supervise and lead four AmeriCorps Trail Crews, design and implement several interpretive school programs within the local community, spear-head wilderness solitude monitoring surveys on the Eleven Point River and in the Irish Wilderness, assist with a new pollinator garden for local butterflies, work with community volunteers and key leaders to partner with Forest Service visions, assist our district Archeologist, our district Surveyor, our Forester, our Fuels Specialist, our Community Service Representative, our Manpower Development Specialist, our Recreation Technician, our GIS Specialist, and most recently, serve on a 3-week detail as a Forest Service Casual Hire fighting wildfires in Colorado.

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FIGHTING FIRE IN MEEKER, COLORADO


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WILDERNESS SURVEYS ON THE ELEVEN POINT RIVER


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OUR NEW BUTTERFLY GARDEN AT SINKING CREEK CABIN


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WORKING WITH AMERICORPS CREWS ARE SOME OF THE MOST REWARDING EXPERIENCES OF MY JOB! 


And now, only six months after starting the VetsWork Intern Program, I have been hired on as a full-time, permanent Forestry Technician on the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest, the neighboring forest to the Mark Twain, just across the Missouri/Arkansas border. While Doniphan and the Mark Twain National Forest will be missed, I am incredibly blessed and grateful to be given this opportunity on the Ozark National Forest, although I had no idea that the opportunities would come so soon.

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THE BEAUTIFUL OZARK-ST. FRANCIS NATIONAL FOREST


In essence, this writing is a true testimony to the power of the VetsWork program and how success really is possible for Interns who are dedicated to the program and its goals. Without the experience provided by the VetsWork Internship Program, I would not even qualify for the job I now hold today.

The Mt. Adams Institute VetsWork program absolutely is what members make of it.   While the program does not guarantee a career, or even a job, if you jump in and take every chance to learn, grow, and develop new skills and experiences, you will achieve your goals for joining the program. Whether your intention is to secure a federal job or pursue higher education, VetsWork can get you there. This is a program of possibility.

I would encourage anyone interested in the Mt. Adams Institute VetsWork Program to strongly consider the opportunity. While the pay is minimal, the hours are long at times, and the requirements may seem stringent and time consuming, it is worth it.

Trust me, it’s worth it.

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VetsWork: Getting Started on the Mark Twain National Forest

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Hi, my name is Brandon Radford. I grew up on a farm, surrounded by very small communities. I spent a lot of time outside with my brothers and sisters, while I was growing up. We enjoyed the forest near us and spent much of our summers swimming and fishing in the Black River, which flowed near our home. I helped with our family farm, logging operation, & sawmill business.

I am a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. I joined the VetsWork program at the very last minute, because I just so happened to be lucky enough to stumble across a Forest Service employee who gently nudged me into the program. I had 17 days to get everything submitted which included rushing around to get my fingerprints done (2 different sets at 2 different places), get my driving record from the DMV, fill out paperwork, and submit documents. I was also working a normal job still, so I still had to give them notice and do my employee out-processing with them too. Fortunately I got this done in time for the weeklong program orientation.

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The orientation week went a lot smoother than I thought it would. I met a group of unique individuals and was able to get a complete understanding of what the program was. Oh yeah, I had just quit a job that I enjoyed to start an internship without a guaranteed job at the end…. And I did not even know what the program was all about or who I was actually doing the program with (Forest Service, Dept. of Agriculture, Mt. Adams Institute, or AmeriCorps). Unfortunately this was not my first blind leap of faith, but it was one that seems to have paid off.

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The orientation was similar to some others that I had done before, but the Mt. Adams Institute crew brought the best approach and the most balanced schedule I have ever had in similar orientations…even though I had to drive nearly 4 hours to attend. They had a variety of training items: inside and outside activities, boring and fun activities, active and inactive activities. The activities were all perfectly balanced and well arranged. We got to do a sloppy trail hike through the mud, haul four trailer loads onto a semi-swamp public trail, quick PowerPoint presentations, ice breakers (always awkward), watch videos, and hung out around evening fires. They were able to get a diverse group of veterans to engage in the activities and commit to the program. This requires a very unique touch. The food was very good, even though the first dinner set the standards a little high (all you can each fried chicken dinner at a lodge resort). The next day/week’s breakfast and lunches (Panera!) were good but hard to compete with the first dinner. The housing was described as modest in the orientation packet, but it was really good. Only thing that it was missing was Wi-Fi, but the days were so full that you didn’t miss it. The best aspect of the training was the fourth day. This was the supervisor day. Our Forest Service supervisors came in to build our work plan for the next ten months and we did a little trail maintenance on the local USFS trail and had lunch at an awesome waterfall. My supervisor and I explained what we each needed from one another and he seemed to mold the next ten month’s agenda around what I wanted out of the program.

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My first day at my placement site was spent training in Rolla, Missouri. I knocked out the required driver safety and first aid trainings. Jane even brought another VetsWork member up to get hers done as well. The next day I linked up with my engineering supervisor, Amy Crews. Oh yeah, again, I forgot to mention that I am being shared between the engineering department in the Rolla Supervisors Office and the Recreation Department at the Potosi District office.  I am scheduled to work two days in Potosi and two days in Rolla. Back to day 2. Amy introduced me around the office and by the end of the day, Amy had assigned me 40 different projects. Turns out, it wasn’t difficult for her to find work for me after all. She continues to add additional projects each week to that list. She is great to work with, because she is a good teacher and easy going. The next morning we went to Ava, Missouri to teach the Recreation crew about the new water system testing procedures and policies. This was supposed to be a quick training, and we planned on visiting some dams that afternoon. We started talking about some problems the Recreation crew in Ava were dealing with and then overshot the training time by just a bit. We made it back to Rolla around 7 p.m. and we didn’t go to any of the dams. The next day I did some more dam research and started to design a quick dam inspection checklist for the Recreation crews on the districts to use every year.

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All and all, the first two weeks of the program have been good. Next time, I’ll share more about the projects that I’m working on.

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VetsWork: Historic Sites on the Mark Twain National Forest

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Having a natural liking to historical times, places, structures, antiques, and even stories, I chose to pursue an intern position in Archaeology. Given that opportunity, and returning as a former 2015 VetsWork Intern, I am now on the Mark Twain National Forest Region 9 in Southeast Missouri. There are several pre-historic and historic sites located on the 11 point Ranger District in which I work. One that I have recently visited for the first time is Greer Mill.

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Greer Mill was built by Samuel Greer of Oregon County, MO in 1899 with his partner, George Mainprize. The mill sits less than 1 mile uphill from Greer Spring. With a system of cables and pulleys, the mill gave farmers access to grain processing and rural populations access to flour. Mill operations ended in 1920, possibly the result of supplies coming in by railroad.

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Today, Greer Mill still stands and has been a prime candidate for a Passport In Time (PIT) project. HistoriCorps, Friends of the 11 Point, and the neighboring Amish community have partnered with the Mark Twain National Forest engaging in these PIT projects and rehabilitation efforts. Reconstruction on structural log beams, rebuilding west end elevation foundation, new siding, new roof, interior bent stabilization, and minor repairs of stairs and infill window openings are just a few.

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This year, there is another PIT Project I will be assisting on. Plans include: debris clean up, floor replacement, artifact collection/documentation, and window preservation.   Eventually, the Mark Twain would like to have Greer Mill reopened to the public in restored condition, machines and equipment for the time period on display, and interpretive signs.

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VetsWork: A Better Beginning

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Husband Jim and I enjoying Chicago……                        ….But we love fishing just as much!          

My family looked at me like I was crazy when I informed them last winter that I applied to a position in a rural southern Missouri town that neither my husband nor I had never been, in the middle of a forest, where we knew no one, for a significant cut in pay, in a job that I had limited formal experience in.

“Why would you want to do that?”

The ever-present question of confused looks on people’s faces when I explained that I was committing to a year of service with AmeriCorps, where I would be giving up a formal paycheck and benefits and relying on a “living allowance” of less-than-minimum-wage pay instead.

We had been living comfortably in Champaign, Illinois, plugged-in to the University of Illinois and only a 2-hour commute from bustling Chicago. Good job, great benefits, nice apartment, surrounded by intellectual, affluent people, and we agonized over it. Clock your 40-hour-weeks in a confined, dark, dingy building, in a space shared with other people and restricted by closed walls, performing the same routine task day-in-and-out, with little room for upward movement or cross training. Go home exhausted. Repeat the next day. Spend weekends in the windy city, where it is uncomfortable to be in the open air, so you sit on the couch and watch TV travel shows instead, wishing you were there, wherever they were. This is the cycle that my husband Jim and I sluggishly found ourselves sinking into. This was not the life that either of us had envisioned, nor dreamed of. Then last year, after a bumpy ride through a situation at my workplace, we made the mutual decision to begin looking for a change in scenery.

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My New Office View on the Mark Twain near the Current and Eleven Point Rivers


That is when I stumbled upon the Mt. Adams Institute VetsWork Program. Mt. Adams Institute receives a grant for veterans, in conjunction with AmeriCorps (alternately named the “domestic Peace Corps”), to fund internship opportunities for veterans within the U.S. Forest Service and associated natural resource agencies. These veterans are placed at various local, state, and federal land management agencies throughout the country, performing 11 months of community service at their site, gaining experience, job skills, and networking connections within the agency. The goal of the VetsWork program is found in providing career development to veterans, ultimately providing potential opportunity for federal employment with an agency in the natural resources world.   Direct access to the outdoors, ability to learn and grow in a new skill set, public service, opportunity for continued federal employment, returning to my wilder roots of growing up in the outdoors of Alaska, almost everything about this program seemed attractive to me.

And so I applied.

And that is simply how we ended up in rural Doniphan, Missouri – a town of 2,000 residents with a Sonic Drive-In on the main drag and a Dollar General on the corner. As the local courthouse is a landmark dating back to the 1890’s, Doniphan is a step back in time to an old-timey-town, filled with local business and not a Walmart in sight, the meandering Current River on one side and the rolling hills of the Mark Twain National Forest on the other. And we love it.

As I start my work here on the Mark Twain National Forest, the stark contrast between the old way of life and the new shows up in more ways than simply a new job and an attempt to have greater access to the outdoors. There is a more simplistic perspective in living here. Shops close by 7:00 on a weeknight, earlier on the weekends. Never in a hurry, and with only one stoplight in Doniphan, motorists take their time at a stop sign and teenagers can be seen out enjoying the main drag of town on a Friday night. Hunting, fishing, boating, camping, swimming all are local pastimes in an area without movie theaters or bowling alleys, shopping malls or skyscrapers, and certainly no subways.

We don’t know where the end of this internship on the Mark Twain National Forest and the connections that we make with the Doniphan community will take us, but Jim and I already know and feel that this eclectic change is for the better. This is much more of the life we were meant to live.


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Skyscrapers outlining downtown Chicago, Illinois


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The 1980’s Downtown Courthouse is the tallest building in Doniphan, Missouri


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White Picket Fences outline the homes in Doniphan          Apartments above a Chicago bank


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Typical mode of transport throughout Chicago     –    Common mode of transportation in Doniphan


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Shops and Businesses of Downtown Chicago


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Local Doniphan Shops and Businesses


IMG_20160304_115453481                                                                      Picnicking – a Favorite Activity in the Mark Twain National Forest


                  

                                                                           

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Dollar General is the only store with the light on past 7pm in Doniphan


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Chicago Street Corner                                                                   Doniphan Street Corner


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  Our wooded backyard behind our Doniphan home “in town”

 


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VetsWork: “Enjoy What You Do, Do What You Enjoy”

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Greer Spring View: Thanks to the Forest Service, this view is no longer only available to private land owners, but is now open to the general public; at least those who dare trek the old mule supply route by foot anyways, down from Greer Mill to the Greer Cabins. Gratefully, I was a part of the initial actions to restore the grounds and be one of the first to see inside the cabin and gaze upon the spring from an old deck that still stands strong today (well, mostly) believed to be built between the 20’s and 40’s.

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Greer Cabins: The cabins were built in the 1920’s and remodeled again in the 1940’s. They stand as both an architectural artifact and an homage to the creativity from almost a century ago. The view alone is very serene and calming and is a great reward for hikers and adventurers alike. And to think, I would never have had an opportunity such as this without the Mt. Adams Institute and the wonderful VetsWork program.


Greer Mill: Built in 1899, Greer Mill is unique because the cables that ran the mill were 3/4 of a mile from the spring, an incredible distance for the technology at the time. I got a chance to meet with some of the members of HistoriCorps, a group dedicated to preserving history utilizing volunteers, as they jacked up the foundation to its proper height. I witnessed a piece of history in the name of preserving history, something meaningful and inspiring to write home about.

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Epitome: These signs can be found at the camping area located at Greer Spring Recreation Area. To me, they not only map the area or list boring rules, they engage visitors by advertising all the joys available to those willing to seek them.

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VetsWork: Wilderness Areas – Not Always Sunshine and Rainbows

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This past month has been really exciting getting to work in Wilderness areas. As an inspiring Wilderness Technician this hands on experience is making me appreciate them more and more. I love the whole wilderness character aspect of them and that it’s a place to get away from all the BS that life throws at you. They’re a place to get some solitude and gain that primitive feeling I enjoy. In the month of May I have been cleaning up the trail on both Rock Pile and Bell Mountain Wilderness with the help of 9 AmeriCorps crew members out of Denver. It feels good getting back into the leadership role and is great experience leading a trail crew working with crosscut saws and various other trail tools. Its hard work and I love it, getting dirty everyday going home feeling like I made a difference. I tell my crew that this job isn’t always sunshine and rainbows so don’t be afraid to get down and dirty. Below is picture taken at Bell Mountain Wilderness which covers 9,027 acres and is part of the St. Francois Mountains.

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Here’s a picture of the crew heading into Rock Pile Wilderness to get some work done. In May, we brushed and logged out a 4 mile trail in the Rock Pile Wilderness, a wilderness area covering 4,131 acres. The crewmembers are between the ages of 18-24 both male and female and from all over the U.S. Their duty station is out of Denver, Colorado where they’ll report back to once their gig is up here in mid-July.

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I have also gained my red card certification and am now a Firefighter Type 2 so I am really hoping to get out west this summer and get a fire under my belt. That would be a great experience and good way to get on with the U.S. Forest Service at the end of my VetsWork internship.

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VetsWork: Career Building – From Dream to Reality.



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Hello all! Only a few months into my new internship with the Forest Service and all is going well. This internship is a time of exploration to learn what I like most and to get a better sense for career/college direction hereafter. I have had many opportunities already to connect with several departments with an array of activities and trainings. This includes work with administrative/clerical, archeology, engineering, fire, recreation, and timber.

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Although I have had more exposure in some departments over others, I have begun to get an understanding of each one in itself. As time goes on, this will help me find my niche and reach my goal of deciding an area of study for the Forest Service or any other related agency. Soon, I will connect with other areas as well to further learning and keep this goal moving forward.

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To be honest, in the back of my mind I do have an idea already of what I may like to pursue as a career. However, I am allowing all experiences/trainings and internship completion before choosing. My career choice needs to be definite. There are many traveling opportunities working for the Department of Agriculture and travelling to new places is a favorite pastime and I do welcome this…depending on where it is of course. Not sure what is to come at or near the end of my internship but am very grateful for this time spent with the VetsWork program on the Mark Twain National Forest gaining new skills and trainings to aid in my future.

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VetsWork: “First Month on The Job”

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I moved from Carbondale, IL to a small town named Park Hills which is only a 25 minute drive into work every day. It has all the essentials you need such as a grocery store, gas station, Mexican restaurant, and gym, plus the rent is super cheap! The Forest Service office in Potosi has been very welcoming and helpful in getting the hang of things. The employees are very friendly and have on numerous occasions let me know that if I have any questions about anything, don’t hesitate to ask them. I’ve been getting out with the recreation folks a lot getting all the parks up and running for opening day. This includes cutting down hazard trees, getting the water systems up and running for clean drinking water, signage, and basic maintenance. I have also gone out with the wilderness and trails technician and logged out a couple trails for the upcoming season getting them up to standards for folks that hike them. In addition I’ve joined the timber crew learning to mark trees and see how that whole process works. My supervisor is very insightful, explaining how the Forest Service works, helping me get all settled in, pushing my paper work through, and answering any questions I have.

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(Rock Pile Wilderness area, one of the three wilderness areas we are responsible for at the Potosi District)

The schedule is really nice, I’ve been alternating between five- nine hour days one week and four- nine hour days the next. So I basically have a three day weekend every other week. Once the season starts to warm up I’ll be switching to four- 10 hour days regularly. This flexibility allows me to work 40 and be done for the week or come in and accumulate some extra time so I can take a day or two off if I have something planned.   Starting in late April an AmeriCorps crew is going to be out here working with us on fixing up some trails. I’ll be working alongside the wilderness and trails tech here, but once he feels I have the hang of it he plans on turning that over to me. So, I’ll be getting some real good hands-on-learning of how to run a trail crew which is very exciting to me being an aspiring wilderness and trails tech.

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(Marble Creek Recreation Area, swimming hole)

When I am not working there are a lot of trails here in my neck of the woods that I am going to have to explore. I enjoy backpacking and plan on making some of them a weekend trip for the longer trails. I also enjoy mountain biking and there are some well-known trails out here such as the Berryman Trail. I can’t wait for the summer season to be in full swing so I can head down to the river and get my float on as well.

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(Council Bluff Recreation Area)

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(Annual Silver Mines Recreation Area Kayak Race)

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