Thursday, August 26, 2010

From the Peninsula Clarion

From the Peninsula Clarion

Friday, August 20, 2010

Story last updated at 8/20/2010 - 1:02 pm

Refuge Notebook: Wilderness Volunteers help rebuild trail

Photo By Refuge Staff

The 2010 Wilderness Volunteers trail crew and staff from the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The volunteers came from around the U.S. and worked on the Cottonwood Creek Trail above Skilak Lake.
The author, Ciara Johnson, is kneeling in the front row, second from the left.

Let me introduce you to the Wilderness Volunteers. Their mission is "Stewardship of America's wild lands through organizing and promoting volunteer service in cooperation with public land agencies." Earlier this year leaders from this organization contacted the Refuge and began a conversation that is still alive and well today. They offered to send a group of volunteers from all over the United States to do a one-week service project in one of the wilderness areas of the Refuge.

We jumped at the opportunity and began a partnership with the Wilderness Volunteers leadership. Before we knew it, June was here and with it came two Wilderness Volunteers trip leaders. They walked into our Headquarters in Soldotna and within ten minutes were making preparations for the week-long trip into the backcountry.

By Saturday afternoon the boats were loaded, trucks were packed with 16 backpacks, bulging bear canisters, sacks of tools, hardhats, tarps, ropes, propane, stoves, cameras, binoculars, maps, radios, rain jackets, tents, bear spray, and Refuge rangers Ryan Beltz and myself.

It was time for take off. Into the trucks piled volunteers ranging from grandparents to grandson, financial planner to opera singer, first-time wilderness volunteer to a 16-trip veteran.

This group wanted the full wilderness experience: no permanent shelters at camp and no machines to do the work project, only human power and creativity. So we went by boat across Skilak Lake to camp at the mouth of Cottonwood Creek. Upon landing, every pair of hands was immediately busy pitching tents, raising tarps, and digging a latrine.

Everyone emerged from their tents the next morning with a bald eagle soaring above camp, the lake glistening, and coffee brewing. The day had been scheduled for recreation, a chance for the volunteers to get situated and enjoy the area. Not a soul was willing to relax around camp, however, and by 9am every person was on the trail, ready to accompany Ryan and me on a hike to the top in preparation for a trail maintenance project.

That evening over dinner, excitement was growing for the project we had scouted -- a reroute around a steep, eroded mud slick. There must have been something good in the corn chowder -- the group was setting goals high, eager for hard work and a chance to make a lasting contribution to the refuge.

As the size and scale of the project plans grew, the volunteers decided to invite the Refuge trail crew to join the effort. With a wave of the logistical wand five new pairs of experienced hands arrived 36 hours later.

No one skipped a beat -- volunteers and crew members who call anywhere from Boston to Tucson home quickly and seamlessly began working side by side, teaching, digging, and sawing -- all the while getting to know each other for the first time. In the course of two days, the new trail corridor had been cleared. The volunteers transformed their enthusiasm and vision into hard skills - swinging Pulaskis and pulling crosscuts. Thick alders, stubborn roots, and buckets upon buckets of debris disappeared in a blur of yellow gloves and blue hardhats. By the third day dead trees had been felled, de-barked, sawed into three-foot sections, notched, and assembled into steps that will prevent the trail from eroding over time.

On Thursday afternoon the work had been completed. Fourteen volunteers, five refuge trail workers, and two refuge rangers had joined together for one week and built a section of trail that will last for decades to come. We picked up our tools and began the 1,700-foot descent from our main worksite.

During the 2 1/2-mile walk to base camp we looked at all the group had accomplished in just four days of work. In addition to the major re-route, volunteers had trimmed back branches, sawed through fallen trees to remove them from the trail, and built a solid stone staircase up a steep incline.

The last day we celebrated with one final excursion into the tundra and up talus peaks. On the way home, we bounced down the mossy hillside, clouds began to dissipate and we caught a glimpse of Skilak Lake 2,500 feet below. Everyone fell asleep for the last time on the beautiful beach that had been their home for the week, closing their eyes against the bright Alaskan night. Although it was only a week together, the experience of working so hard and living together in such a remote place built friendships and memories of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge that each volunteer will have with them for years to come.

Each year more and more volunteers have been able to get involved at the Refuge and much of what we accomplish relies on their work. Whether it is a week-long service project on our trails or a summer-long commitment as a campground host or visitor services intern, volunteers continuously make lasting contributions to the Refuge, and they take with them a meaningful experience to share with their friends and family when they leave.

More information about the Wilderness Volunteers program can be found at

Ciara Johnson is a Seasonal Park Ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge responsible for facilitating resource conservation projects for volunteer groups.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

WV's Annual Leader Training Trip

Lizard Head Wilderness, CO (2010)

Arriving at the trailhead of an entirely new wilderness area is for me a truly invigorating thrill. After nearly eight months of preparation and anticipation (growing much more intense in the final two weeks), the moment has finally arrived. My co-leader Bill and I are leading a one-week service project to clean out existing water bars along the popular Navajo Lake Trail and install new water bars as needed. This work is recommended by our partners in the San Juan National Forest every two-three years to keep the trail properly maintained and drained .

Normally, the anticipation of a week spent tent camping in a glorious wilderness (under three of Colorado's famous 14,000 foot peaks) would be enough excitement for any outdoor enthusiast. But this trip has an added ingredient making it much more special -- this is Wilderness Volunteers' annual Leader Training Trip, where we train a new crop of trip leaders to join our corps of nearly 100 leader volunteers on service projects in years to come.

I arrive in Colorado with Maidie from Portland, OR and we load our backpacks and make the short two-mile hike to our selected camp, within ear-shot of a series of waterfalls on the West Fork of the Dolores River. Five intrepid trainees have chosen this week to learn a variety of outdoor leadership skills: organizing and purchasing food for as many as twelve volunteers, and packing it in panniers strapped to pack horses; preparing and cooking food for groups; keeping a sanitary and safe kitchen and properly hanging food to protect it from animals; teaching Leave-No-Trace principles; practicing strong communications with public land agency personnel; and, ultimately, being an effective backcountry leader. Wilderness Volunteer leaders are required to be trained in Wilderness First Aid and enjoy a series of benefits in return for their time spent planning and leading in the field.

Throughout our week on the Navajo Lake Trail we deal with intermittent rain, identify problem areas on the trail and fix them, take a day off to hike through an 11,500' pass, take many, many photographs, learn to be good leaders, and, perhaps most significantly, we make new friends and acquaintances along the way.

We're always identifying and recruiting new leaders at Wilderness Volunteers, and we're beginning the process of planning for next year's annual Leader Training trip. If you're an experienced outdoor enthusiast looking for new and rewarding challenges, contact Dave at or 801-467-4305.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Got Nature?

Great Falls National Park, VA (2010)

I'm about to begin reading Richard Louv's bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, which argues that children need nature just as much as they need their vegetables and their playgrounds and their ABCs. It's an argument we hear more and more frequently and it doesn't apply just to children, particularly in our increasingly digital world.

In fact, there's a growing field of research into the effects of technology on our brains - on how technology affects the way we think and act - with special attention paid to the role nature might play in reversing those effects. In today's New York Times, Matt Richtel writes about a study undertaken by a group of neuroscientists who set out to explore this relationship during a week-long rafting trip on the San Juan River in Utah's Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

WV in the News

It's been a busy couple weeks for Wilderness Volunteers, with six trips completed since July 25th, including the Leader Training Trip in Colorado's Lizard Head Wilderness. Stay tuned for some photos, video, and stories from our volunteers.

A few lucky volunteers who spent a week in Colorado's Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness even made the local paper.