Public Lands Steward: In the Land of Barbs

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I’m in the home stretch. The weather is starting to turn, but heat still lingers from the hottest Washington summer that I’ve experienced.

My escapades in fence building and maintenances have slowed considerably, as my partner Morganne and I took down most of the major projects. But don’t worry; barbs are still in my life! Not from fences, but from bullhead catfish. The biology intern, Guy, left the refuge in mid-August, and Morganne and I took over some of his duties. This consists of the setting and retrieval of fyke nets. We set three pairs of these nets Monday through Thursday in the various ditches throughout the refuge. The majority of the invasive species we remove from these nets are the bullhead catfish, and they have barbs on the pectoral fins and dorsal fin, making handling them nasty business. We’ve each gotten a few catfish splinters. Bullheads and bull frogs are the invasive species we remove; trying to get all the bull out of Conboy. Besides nets, we are in the midst of a trail building project, which is also a nice break from fencing.


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Outside of work, I’ve gotten into mountain biking! I enjoy hiking, and mountain biking just adds a little adrenalin rush for the way down. There are tons of great trails in the Gifford Pinchot forest, with little crowds, so I don’t have to worry about running anyone ever. I’m also spending a good amount of time studying for the GRE, and the solitude of Conboy is a great place for it. After my term is up here I plan on focusing a month on grad school applications, and then head to Colorado with my sister and friends and live the ski bum lifestyle for a winter, or forever. We’ll see.

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          I am grateful for the summer I’ve had here in Conboy. I’m not sure I will ever have another time like it. There aren’t many distractions, meaningless cares or worries, but plenty of time to think about what is actually important. Barbed wire and barbed catfish build character.

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Public Lands Steward: Master of Fences

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Writing this entry, I mark the start of my 5th week as an AmeriCorps volunteer at Conboy Lake Wildlife Refuge in Glenwood WA, a cattle ranching town of about 400. There are far more cows in Glenwood than people. I experienced a proper welcoming to the wetlands refuge, receiving BBQ bullfrog legs on my arrival. Glenwood isn’t like anywhere that I’ve ever lived, but I think I will enjoy myself this summer.

Work begins each day a little after sunrise, at 7. The bunkhouse I live in is on the refuge, though I still have to scramble out of bed a bit to make it on time. My partner Morganne and I mosey on over to refuge HQ and get our assignments for the day. Typically, this means fence repair. Conboy is surrounded by cattle ranches on all sides, and Morganne and I are the first line of defense for the refuge. So most days we mend the endless miles of barbed wire fence that keep cattle out. The mornings are my favorite, with mist still evaporating off the grassy marshes. This is the time when sandhill cranes are spotted, the migratory birds that call Conboy their temporary homes. Usually in pairs, the cranes give a loud unusual squawk when we get too close. Sometimes the maintenance guy, Tim, has jobs for us. Tim’s work is alway welcomed, and mostly fun. We’ve helped him install agri-drains through dikes which have to be nearly perfectly level to function correctly. Time flies when working with Tim. Other work we do involves eradicating public enemy number 1 on the refuge, bullfrogs. Invasive to the area, bullfrogs eat just about anything that they can get their mouths around and are tough to kill. About once a week or so we head out to the swamp after dark, armed with headlamps, nets, and gigs (frog spears). Our target is the bullfrog. They are much easier to catch at night. The light from the headlamp stuns the frog, but even so, one must be quick and have good aim. The main reason for removing the bullfrogs is to protect another species, the Oregon Spotted Frog, whose numbers have dwindled in the past years. Having a fresh supply of frog legs is an added bonus.

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The living conditions here at Conboy are nothing like I expected. When I heard bunkhouse, I imagined shared rooms and living simply. But I am living in luxury here. The bunkhouse has AC, a modern kitchen, and a 50” TV, which I try not to get sucked into. After work I often read, study for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and hang around the bunkhouse. Twice a week I drive to the next town over and play pickup soccer, with ages ranging from 10-40ish. I try to fill each weekend with some kind of adventure, and the Gifford Pinchot Forest has plenty to offer.

On July 4th my sister visited and we summited Mt. Adams at 12,000 feet. After hiking we were a bit tired, so we decided to take the quick way down on our snowboards. Summer shredding down a volcano on Independence Day is something I’ll never forget. I’ve also discovered the area has huckleberries, the finest of all berries. Eat one: collect one; that is the correct picking method.

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I’m about a third the way through my term, and though the work is hard, I am very happy here. After my first two weeks of fencing my arms were shredded from barbed wire, but I’m starting to get less and less scratches. I’ve plenty of time to think at Conboy, and very few of these thoughts involve stress. I enjoy sleeping with the sun and the slow pace of life in Glenwood, WA.

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