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.