This year marks the 25th anniversary of AmeriCorps, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Continue Reading…
This internship has been one of the best experiences in my life and I am so happy that I took this opportunity and never looked back. Here are some pictures from my experience.
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.
I recently had the amazing opportunity to spend two weeks in sunny California…for work! My AmeriCorps Public Lands Stewards position at the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery involves Latino outreach and Spanish/English translations, and what better place to research bilingual outreach than southern California? My wonderful supervisor, Julia, worked with a couple of Fish and Wildlife employees and partners in CA to set up my trip. The main goal of the trip was to gain exposure to well-established bilingual programming and apply what I learned to future bilingual programs at the Hatchery. I could write a novel about all of the neat things I learned and cool people I met on my trip, but I’ll just give you the highlights…
My trip began in Monterey, CA. While there, I spent two days shadowing educators at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I got to see programs for a variety of ages, from preschool through high school. I especially enjoyed watching the preschool programs. Preschoolers are great to work with, because everything you tell them absolutely blows their minds. Aquarium staff introduced the preschoolers to different ocean habitats and the creatures that live in those “homes.” The kids got to see (and sometimes touch) different plants and animals that live in coastal habitats, and it was amazing for me to see the wonder in their eyes and their excitement at feeling a slimy kelp leaf or a rough abalone shell. The best part about this preschool program was that it was entirely bilingual. Most of the students were learning Spanish at home and English at school, so the aquarium staff smoothly switched between the two languages to help the kids learn new vocabulary in both English and Spanish. I plan to use this style of interpretation in future tours that I give at the Hatchery!
After enjoying a few days with the otters and beaches of Monterey, it was time for the next leg of my trip–San Diego! I spent a week exploring the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex and learning about the challenges faced by urban wildlife refuges. The Complex consists of three urban refuges, and each refuge faces its own unique set of challenges.
The San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is entirely surrounded by the city of San Diego and the San Diego Bay. The site is an important place for migratory birds, but the refuge’s proximity to a large city can make it challenging to maintain a healthy, natural ecosystem.
Tijuana Slough NWR is close to the border with Mexico along the Tijuana River. This refuge is situated between two large cities–San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. Both nature and pollutants do not recognize international borders, so the refuge is affected by both. Because Mexico and the United States have different environmental policies, it can be difficult to manage this type of refuge without communication and cooperation on both sides of the border.
The third refuge in the Complex is the San Diego NWR. This is a large, noncontiguous refuge outside of the city. San Diego NWR has many access points, making it difficult for staff to enforce NWR regulations and monitor trail usage.
My trip to San Diego taught me that urban refuge management must focus on managing the people that impact the refuge and not just the plants and animals on the refuge itself. My experience at the San Diego Refuge Complex has inspired me to seek future employment in the urban refuge system.
I feel lucky that I had the chance to experience so many interesting things on my trip. I want to send a HUGE thank-you to my supervisor and all of the other people who helped make this trip happen!
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…
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.
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.
My hope is that this blog will help the Refuge Technicians that come after me to hit the ground running and get a better feel for the people, and the work of a Refuge Technician at Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge (CLNWR). Continue Reading…
Last time I wrote, I had mentioned that I was moving on to a more permanent assignment with the U.S. Forest Service that would surely last throughout my AmeriCorps service period. I was to take on a trail difficulty rating project that rated the trails in the Shawnee National Forest for difficulty based on various terrain features. After getting my feet wet at the always busy and popular Garden of the Gods Observation Trail, I moved on to other less-known trails in the 400 mile spider web network of trails in the forest.
Basically what came next was me pumping these trails out one by one. It got me out of the office and into nature—I love my job. At the beginning of each day I plan what trails I will walk. Some tools I use are: Recreation Opportunity Guides (ROG’s) available to the public, our trails database in Natural Resources Manager (NRM) and Geographic Information System (GIS). With these guides and programs I can see where the trails are, the topography of the area, how long the trails are and other features I may encounter like streams and scenic overlooks. I always like to make maps of each trail I walk in GIS to take with me to the field. These maps have accurate contour lines that I can compare to my handheld GPS. This has proven to be very useful because some of these trails aren’t well-blazed and you can get turned around relatively easy, especially in the middle of summer when the vegetation is thick.
A map I made in ArcGIS of Garden of the Gods Recreation Area. As you can see, the roads are black, the trails are red, and there are waypoints marked via my handheld GPS on the observation trail. This was my first trail mapped and rated. It received an “easy” difficulty rating.
Some Extra Duties
My trail rating project continued to go strong and still is. I was walking trails basically every day through the late spring and into summer. However, I was about to be given a change of scenery. Aside from the difficulty rating I was performing on these trails, there was another optional portion that had not yet been talked about. This other portion was to conduct wilderness monitoring. We finally began talking about it and a meeting was scheduled with the forest’s wilderness technician to go over what had to be done and the procedures involved. We have seven Federal designated wilderness areas in the Shawnee that make up roughly 10% of the forest. I was given some sheets that I would bring with me into the wilderness to record data. Some of this data includes solitude monitoring like how many hikers or equestrians are encountered in what period of time. Overall condition of campsites and equestrian high line areas are recorded. Any mark left by man is noted. I also monitor exotic plant species in these areas. This area is very prone to species such as, autumn olive, Japanese honeysuckle, garlic mustard, Japanese stiltgrass, and microstegium. The presence of these plants are recorded, and in cases where there are small patches, I pull them up in an attempt to eradicate. I tagged along with the wilderness tech to monitor Bald Knob Wilderness. We went in on the Lyerle trail, cut across to what is known locally as the VW trail (because of the old VW in the middle of the woods) and finally to the Godwin Trail. She showed me the ropes and how to fill out the data sheets then turned me loose on my own to monitor any wilderness areas I came in contact with during my normal trail rating work. Since then I’ve monitored Garden of the Gods, Lusk Creek, Panther Den and Bay Creek Wilderness areas.
As summer peaked the temps were getting up there. It seems like we went through several heat waves where the heat indices would top 105 degrees. Basically it was miserable and sometimes dangerous being on the trail. The humidity is atrocious in Southern Illinois and there is a spider web about every ten feet. Spider webs don’t come out of beards very easily. Conveniently, another job came up. Our recreation department had been short-handed, and they were approaching their end of August deadline to have their rec site analysis completed. I gladly took the job because it got me out of the heat for the most part. I drove around Southern Illinois to all 78 rec sites in the Shawnee and inventoried everything from signs to wheel stops and noted their condition. Not only was this an escape from the heat, it was a great learning experience. I now know my way around this forest like a champ!
A view from the Mississippi River bottom towards Inspiration Point atop LaRue Pine Hills.
A view from Inspiration Point overlooking the Mississippi River bottoms
I couldn’t pass up this photo op of an old barn sitting in a soybean field at the base of LaRue Pine Hills.
Some Heritage Activities
In June the Shawnee National Forest welcomed a group of middle school-aged kids and their chaperones for the “More Native Kids in the Woods” program. These children and adults are actual descendants of the Shawnee Native Americans that once inhabited this area. They were here for a week and we showed them places like Garden of the Gods, Rim Rock, Hutchins Creek for a fish shocking and collecting exercise and the Cache River on a canoe float trip where we got to witness the state champion bald cypress.
The Illinois state champion baldcypress (Taxodium distichum var. distichum). At 100 feet tall and 43 feet in circumference, this giant was here for the birth of our country and is estimated to be over 1200 years old. Located in the Cache River wetlands. Southern Illinois is the northern-most range of native cypress/tupelo swamps.
This has certainly been an action-packed summer full of learning opportunities and new experiences. I look forward to more opportunities to learn new skills and get as much experience under my belt as I can. I have come to learn that the people I work with don’t view me as another body to get work done. Instead, they realize the purpose of this internship as the skill and experience-building tool that it is meant to be and they all work hard to offer as many learning opportunities to me as they can. For that I am grateful. Now as summer slowly draws to an end and the days start getting cooler and the spiders cease to spin their webs, the trail, in all its solitude and natural beauty, once again calls my name. Where will it lead me next? That is what I am excited to find out.
There is something that calls to the men and women who have served their country in the Armed Forces. It quietly gnaws at them from somewhere down deep where they can never quite understand it. From the beginning of time it was placed there, eons before their right hand was ever raised and the Oath of Enlistment sworn. Somehow it almost seems unfair that this group of fine folks was born with a feeling that leaves them unsatisfied outside the uniform, beyond the common brotherhood of a service. However “the outside” as most veterans soon discover is called that for a lot of reasons. It is difficult even to describe for me and I have been out for over two years. I think the military is the single biggest paradox in the world. When you’re in most of the time you want out and when you finally get out for some inescapable reason you want back in; or at some level of the human psyche you think you do.
So what are we to do but live our lives and learn the lessons? The only question that sometimes comes to me late at night is this; at whose cost and what price will this lesson be learned? I am thankful for my wife’s unending patience and encouragement through all of this. I say this all the time, but it can never be said too much. Without the love and support of my family and the good Lord I would not be where I am today! I think that for a lot of veterans like myself there will never be another real job. I think that it’s important to note that I actually have a real job right now. What I mean is this; after being in charge of millions of dollars of equipment and squads or even platoons of personnel the prospect of a conventional 9-5 job does not sit well with most veterans. Additionally, some lack skill sets and experience required for the career path they may want to cross over to. For myself it was never a question of finding another career; it was finding something that I love doing again. There is a huge gap that appears when you transition out of the military and generally speaking the longer the enlistment time the more deployments and therefore the larger the gap. Unfortunately most of the veterans I know are people in that gap. The key is finding something to fill the gap that has similar experiences with the military and that you will enjoy.
As part of my internship I was fortunate enough to become Red Card certified and sent out west with a Wildland Firefighting crew. While in Wyoming our crew was able to help contain two different fires. Remember that gnawing little feeling? Since transitioning from the Army in 2014 I have been feeling it grow stronger each month. When I got to my first fire everything just sort of clicked, like I was supposed to be doing this and nothing else…that feeling was gone. Part of the reason I felt so at home is there are a lot of similarities between Wildland Firefighting and the Military. Too many to mention, really. However one is significant to me: in the beginning of the Incident Response Planning Guide (IRPG), which is like the Wildland Firefighter’s bible, on page V you will find the Army’s 11 Leadership Principals almost word for word. I guess they figured since they have been around since 1948 they wouldn’t change them!
Being on a fire for 14 days pulling 16 hour shifts and sleeping in your tent is like this bizarre but mostly great combination of Basic Training, prison camp, and a resort in the Rockies. In basic training you meet a bunch of guys you don’t know, eat MRE’s, tell a lot of bad jokes and fart whenever you want. However by the end of it you all survived and bonded and it really developed you for the better as a person. Alright, so obviously I’ve never been to a prison camp…however at times (mostly cold trailing) fire was a toilsome task. Sometimes it was just downright punishing due to the sun and the smoke or just the grade of the slope we were actually standing and working on. However in fire just like anything else there is down time and for all that hard work there is rest. The money is better than prison camp too. Lastly, if you are lucky enough to land on a large fire as we did for our last 9 days out you will have a catering service, supply tent and hot showers; all the comforts of home. Not to mention we were looking at the snowcapped peaks of Yellowstone National Park!
For those of you interested there are a lot of opportunities, especially if you are in good physical condition and are willing to travel. Additionally if you are a veteran there are multiple programs to get you certified, including the one that I am currently in; http://www.mtadamsinstitute.com/programs/ As veterans you remember that no matter what happens in life you can always recall Basic Training, right? Wildland Firefighting has that same effect. No matter what, you will always remember the sound of the crackle and the smells…you will always remember your first fire. To the members of the CAC-1 Crew out of West Virginia if you are reading this I hope you enjoyed the post and THANK YOU! Especially to Bravo Squad and the crew Bosses who shared both nuggets of wisdom and tidbits of ridiculousness, not necessarily in that order. So here’s to always having a “Pirate Tuesday” and may none of us ever have to grid three miles of desert sage again!
Let me just come right out and say it—my time as a member of Mt. Adams Institute’s (MAI) Public Lands Stewards (PLS) program, hands down, has been the best experience of my life. There are still eight weeks left and every expectation I had has already been surpassed. I came here looking to discover a career path and ended up discovering things about myself I had never known. I have let go of my anxiety, stepped out of my comfort zone and allowed myself to become fully immersed in every aspect of this AmeriCorps program. I am finally living the life I have always wanted for myself. My time here has been such an incredible adventure, it is hard for me to put into words all of the different things I’ve experienced and learned. I am hoping that these pictures will allow you to get a glimpse of the extraordinary journey I have had the privilege of being on over the past four months.
This summer, I have been lucky to call the beautiful shrub-steppe of the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge (CNWR) my home.
This is the first time positions as Refuge Technicians have been offered at CNWR, through the Public Lands Stewards program. Therefore, my fellow coworker Jack and I like to think of ourselves not as refuge technicians, but rather, refuge pioneers.
The Northern Leopard Frog is a threatened species in the West and will potentially be reintroduced to CNWR. In order to determine possible threats to the Northern Leopard Frog, a huge part of our time has been spent setting fyke nets in various ponds to establish which species are already living in the water systems on the refuge.
Deciding the locations for the nets allows us to explore and get to the know ins and outs of the refuge.
Each evening we set two nets in four locations.
In the morning we empty each net into a bucket and count and record every individual species that was caught. This is an example of what one of our net catches looks like.
Carp, pumpkinseed sunfish, yellow perch and bullfrogs are the most common non-native or invasive species that we catch. Just the other day, we caught over 5,000 pumpkinseed sunfish at one location! Tree frogs, painted turtles, sculpin, and tiger salamanders are among the native species that we often come across in our nets.
Occasionally we get to travel down to Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge to work with two other PLS members, whose mission is to protect the endangered Oregon Spotted frog (like the one I am holding below) by using fyke nets to remove invasive species.
ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION PROGRAMS
Several times throughout the summer, I had the opportunity to assist with environmental education programs. One week, the Hey Kids summer program came to CNWR and I was able to help children and young adults establish a connection with nature. I taught them how to properly use binoculars, bird watching techniques, how to identify native plants, and introduced them to some local species.
INVASIVE PLANT MAPPING AND INVASIVE WEED ABATEMENT
It’s funny, but spending time this summer mapping and terminating invasive plants and weeds, has actually sparked within me a newfound interest for plants. Since these experiences, I have developed a new hobby as I became fascinated with identifying and learning about various wildflowers, shrubs, and trees.
“Invasive plant mapping on Saddle Mountain using GIS systems”
“Invasive weed abatement along the White Salmon River”
Here, I am holding a species of Indigo Bush. This is considered invasive because native species are outcompeted by it as it forms dense thickets in prairies and along rivers.
This was one of our first assignments. The physical labor not only built character, it built muscles I would end up needing for future projects!
INJURED WILDLIFE RESCUES
Often times people report an injured animal and either the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will be called out to rescue the animal and transport it to a wildlife rehabilitation center. I had the opportunity to assist with the rescue of this Swainson’s Hawk pictured below.
SANDHILL CRANE BANDING
This was definitely one of my favorite projects. Working that closely with such a majestic species gives you a very gratify feeling and I am just so thankful to have been included in such an amazing event.
Other opportunities I participated in, that I unfortunately have no pictures of to share with you, included: Washington ground squirrel monitoring, nighttime bullfrog hunts, a boat tour of the White Bluffs Scenic Area and Hanford Reach National Monument, and a ride-along with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service federal wildlife officer. I told you I have experienced A LOT!! And that isn’t even including all of the things I did during my free time on the weekends! Let’s see I’ve also: explored two major cities, Seattle and Portland; hiked to 5 different waterfalls throughout Washington and Oregon; cliff jumped into Punchbowl Falls; saw a concert at the Gorge Amphitheatre which overlooks the beautiful Columbia River; camped in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and along the Klickitat River; and, one of my greatest accomplishments, climbed Mt. Adams to about 10,200 ft. in elevation.
None of this could have been possible, however, without the encouragement and support from the MAI staff and my fellow PLS members, who I now am honored to call great friends. In just four short months, I have formed friendships and bonds that I know I will carry with me the rest of my life.
I’m not quite sure what the next chapter of my life will look like. I may land a job in a conservation related field. I may apply to a federal law enforcement academy to become a park ranger. I may even go back to school to pursue a Master’s degree. Whatever it is though, I am certain I will succeed. Mt. Adams Institute and AmeriCorps have given me all the experiences, tools, and confidence I need to achieve anything I set my mind to. They are an extraordinary organization that I am so incredibly grateful I got to be a part of. Thank you MAI!