Meet David Kabak, 2020 VetsWork AmeriCorps Intern!

I noticed the Mt. Adams Institute VetsWork opportunity during a research for jobs while planning a move nearby a National Forest. It seemed like a good fit with my plans to further my education in the field of forestry.

I’m looking forward to the experience and getting back on track to a career in the great outdoors.

VetsWork: Voices Inside the Forest

Hello my name is Serena Sue Barto and I am currently serving a VetsWork: Environment internship as a Fire/Logistics Dispatcher at the Illinois Interagency Dispatch Center in Murphysboro, Illinois on the Shawnee National Forest. Continue Reading…

VetsWork: Total Eclipse of the Heart(land)

Since my last blog, a truly spectacular event has occurred that you, the reader, will have likely heard about—The Great American Solar Eclipse. As we all know, in August, much of the United States of America had the pleasure and astronomical luck of witnessing a total solar eclipse. Continue Reading…

VetsWork: On the Road Again

The last time I wrote, I was in the final leg of my previous 11-month VetsWork AmeriCorps adventure with the U.S. Forest Service. Hiring freezes and my stubborn nature to land a job on my local forest has me back for another fun-filled year with the VetsWork AmeriCorps program on the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois (the nice part of Illinois, not Chicago). While I didn’t find a permanent position, another year with the VetsWork program will give me more diverse experience in the field, and help me expand my resume even further—and it is already paying off!

Right out of the gate, my supervisor put me in contact with our forest’s silviculturist to ask about any work opportunities he would have available that I could help with. He happily assigned me to a project in the Lee Mine area where I would be conducting a 72 plot Common Stand Exam. Having recently received a bachelor’s in forestry, this was a perfect fit for me, as it would provide me with actual on-the-ground experience in the field. I began brushing up on my tree identification and before I knew it, I was out in the field collecting data on what was going to be one of our first timber sales in a long time.

A friend I made while collecting timber sale data.

The stands of timber consist generally of pine; mostly shortleaf pine with some eastern white and loblolly pine mixed in. In the field, all of my forestry senses came out. I started noticing things I had learned from courses in the forestry curriculum. I noticed how parts of the area that had been burned yielded more oak and hickory regeneration. To say the least, I was where I needed to be. Then, the rains came.

In early May, Mother Nature, whom I have learned and are forced to love, dumped upwards of ten inches of rain on southeast Missouri and southern Illinois. Rivers rose, creeks roared, and my basement flooded. Afterwards, on a clear sunny day, I was power-washing my boat when I received a call from a man named Ray who had heard through the Forest Service grapevine that I had an extensive knowledge of the Shawnee’s trail system, and wondered if I would be interested in assisting with trail assessment and clearing. I happily offered my assistance, because that’s what you do when you are trying to make a name for yourself, and joined the Southern Tier 2017 Flood Incident Management Team.

Flooded trail on the Mark Twain National Forest.

The operation is based out of the Mark Twain National Forest. In the first week, I walked over 30 miles of trail looking for blowouts and downed trees. Every day started with a briefing and ended with a debriefing. We eventually got some saw teams from the Green Mountain National Forest. Working with these guys has been awesome. I have made some great friends as a result of this natural disaster, and they have learned the hardships of humidity, ticks, and poison ivy. I am writing this blog in what appears to be the last week of work on this incident. My new friends will soon go back home, and I will go back to stand exams; but I cannot be any more excited to see what the rest of the year brings, if the first couple months have been like this.

VetsWork: A Fork In The Trail

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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.

Wilderness Monitoring in the Panther's Den Wilderness

Wilderness Monitoring in the Panther’s Den Wilderness

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.
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VetsWork: “The Trail” – Knowing the Forest, Inside & Out

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            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.

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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.

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            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!

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A view from the Mississippi River bottom towards Inspiration Point atop LaRue Pine Hills.

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A view from Inspiration Point overlooking the Mississippi River bottoms

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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.

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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.

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