Friday, July 25, 2014

12. Volunteer with an Environmental Group

It’s pretty hard to live in Vermont and not notice what a spectacular natural setting we enjoy.  I live in the biggest city, Burlington (with its whopping population of about 60,000 people).  From my home I can walk directly down to the waterfront of Lake Champlain, the country’s 6th biggest lake, in about 10 minutes.  I can see the Adirondack Mountains across the lake in New York to the west, and the Green Mountains of Vermont, including the iconic Camel’s Hump and our tallest peak, Mount Mansfield, to the east. While it’s impossible to miss the beauty all around me, it’s only been in the last five years, and particularly the last 18 months, that I’ve started to go a little deeper and see the environment of Vermont up close and personal, and for that I mainly have two sources to thank, the Saint Michael’s College Wilderness Program and my enthusiastic naturalist boyfriend, Jon.  Both have been instrumental in getting me outside, in all kinds of weather, exploring all kinds of activities, landscapes, flora and fauna.  One of the things I’ve noticed is that, when your focus changes in terms of the ways you spend your time and the places you go, your friendship circles shift as well.  Mine has widened to include many outdoor enthusiasts who know much more about the world outside my door than I do.  The two new things in this post and the next one both came about because of this newfound desire to learn much more about the world outside.

When I made my list of new things to do in 2014, volunteering in several forms was on it, including volunteering with a conservation or environmental group.  That turned out to be easy, because one of the coolest people I know, Lynn, is a land steward for The Vermont Nature Conservancy (TNC).  When she learned that I wanted to volunteer she suggested that I take advantage of one of TNC’s day-long volunteer opportunities, boundary marking.  One of TNC’s primary activities is acquiring and preserving pieces of land that are home to unique or essential species or ecosystems, and Lynn has in her care dozens of areas.  She has created a rotating a schedule so that every year during the winter and early spring she and other TNC staff and volunteers walk their perimeter, monitoring and renewing the boundaries that set them off. 

Lynn, refreshing a blue blaze on a tree.  She also had the fun job of lugging around both cans of non-washable paint all day.
The property that I wound up helping to boundary mark, Chickering Bog, is especially near and dear to me because Jon had done an earlier volunteer stint there supervising the building of one of the signs that marks the property.  Because of the particularly harsh winter of 2014 our boundary marking stint was delayed from its originally scheduled date during the winter (when we would have walked it in snow shoes) to the spring, when we slogged through the mud and occasional patch of stubborn snow.  For our mission we carried a bunch of tools: a can of bright blue (nonwashable) paint to renew the blazes on trees marking the trail and boundary lines; metal TNC signs to replace worn ones;  colored plastic tape, a compass and a GPS unit.  The usual plan is to divide into two groups, go around the perimeter from opposite sides, and meet in the middle. But when the day came for the marking, the other volunteers backed out so it was just Lynn, me and her assistant, Becky.  As a single team, we’d need to go around the entire area instead of just half. But that was no obstacle for pros like Lynn and Becky, who are out in the field every week, in all kinds of weather lugging around everything from chain saws to lumber for trail-making. 

Becky getting ready to replace a Nature Conservancy sign on a tree

...and me doing the same thing after she showed me how a few minutes later.
The period known to other English-speakers as “spring” is in Vermont called “mud season” and Chickering Bog was doing its best to embody the meaning of both the terms “mud season” and “bog”.  Along our boundary march we crashed through piles of snow that refused to melt in shaded areas, sank in mud and slid down steep embankments.  But we also saw birds and plants and crazy fungi making early appearances, and cool ice structures existing in the in-between of streams that couldn’t decide whether they were frozen or flowing.
Nothing like running into a bit of bright red fungi bigger than your head.  Note Lynn's booted foot provides a bit of scale.

A natural chandelier of ice formations suspended from a fallen log over a stream.

When we finally completed the entire circumference of the property, we were tired and muddy and splotched with blue paint.  But it was the good kind of tired where you feel like you accomplished something and got to see something that not everyone does – in this case, that elusive moment when one season is sliding into another, and leaving traces of that evolution on a natural environment.   If you get the chance, volunteer for a day with The Nature Conservancy.  Maybe we’ll slide through some mud and search for faded blazes together, since I know for sure that I'll be back.

Lynn and I posing in our muddy, paint-spotted clothes at the end of the day in front of one of the Chickering Bog signs. Everyone can now breath happy knowing that the boundary has been checked and re-posted and all is in good order

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