- August 28, 2015
- Posted by Questen Inghram
My MCC Youth Expedition Experience – Week 1
By Questen Inghram
My three bags sat on the pavement and I stood with five other teenagers I had never met before (Owen, Levi, Ryleigh, Becca, and Hailey) awaiting instruction. Duffel, check. Backpack, check. Daypack, check. We had to unpack everything to be checked by our crew “leads” before loading the rig full of our “personals” and the many tools and equipment we needed for our four projects in one month-long “hitch”. There’s a bit of lingo you pick up in the Montana Conservation Corps.
I decided to join the MCC Youth Expedition in order to gain work and outdoor experience. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the MCC experience would help me grow in leadership, communication, and responsibility, make me reevaluate what is necessary and what is not, and also make me realize that there is plenty of work that needs to be done that cannot without volunteers. Being a volunteer, I learned, is easy, after taking the confident jump into committing to be one.
The orientation was mostly information for parents and was brief compared to the time spent loading and “swamping” (making sure everything is in order) the rig—a white Ford Expedition with a small cargo trailer attached to the back. I could see right away that fitting a few weeks of food for six hungry teenagers in a single trailer was no easy feat, along with all the other essentials. I was assigned to Crew #3, led by Emily Swartz and Rachel Brewster, two people who have done conservation work all over the country.
Before I knew it, we were off on our first project, not too far from home: Townsend Ranger District in the Helena National Forest. We set up camp at Skidway Campground. I was weary at first about the food we would be having, but the first night we made peanut stir-fry—I then knew that I’d be all right. I was surprised at how quickly I got used to sharing at tent with two other guys and waking up early—beforehand I was sleeping in pretty late. I am the type of guy that needs the alarm clock across the room in order for it to wake me up. Quite honestly I was concerned that I’d be the last one up every day—which I was, but never late, except maybe once or twice.
Our duty, along with Crew #2, was to take out a barbed wire fence that hadn’t been used for three decades, an obstacle for wildlife, hunters, and an eyesore on the landscape. One thing that I understood immediately was that our work wasn’t really something that can be completed per se… there is miles and miles of useless fence all over our public lands, which is an incredible shame.
June 15th, our first day of work, we got a late start not only because of the daily construction work on the road out there but also because we weren’t certain where our section of fence was, and when we got there, we weren’t really efficient, we were still learning not only how to cut and roll wire but also the whole work process. Typically, a pair of people within the crew would be temporarily assigned to do one thing, such as three pulling staples, three rolling wire, and the two pulling posts. When we were up in the mountains like we were in the Townsend Ranger District, we had to hike them downhill a few hundred yards to a logging road. Before and after work we’d do the specialized MCC stretch circle, which is like gym class stretch meets yoga. About two hours before and after lunch there is a fifteen minute snack break, with “WAM!” being called every fifteen minutes or so. WAM stands for Water Appreciation Moment—in other words, water break, to make sure everyone stays hydrated. Injuries, snake bites, and bear attacks were not the primary concerns of the leaders. Apparently most of the danger is in heat stroke, dehydration, etc… so I was drinking way more than I ever was before. Every morning I filled my 2.5 liter platypus camelback, a one liter bottle, and my trusty Army canteen tied to my belt, and by the end of the work day all were empty. As the weeks progressed, I was refilling more and more throughout the day. So there are a few minor things to get into the swing of, but essentially after the first week I felt pretty confident in our ability to adapt, and I could tell the others on my crew did as well.
On our final day of work on our first week’s project, I felt that we had made a very tangible change to the local environment. That few miles of fence that we had taken out were a few miles reclaimed to Nature. One could look to see what work was still to be had—which would be somewhat discouraging, but I am of the opinion that the positive aspect of any given situation should be dwelled upon. And we truly had many things to be proud of that first week.
My MCC Youth Expedition Experience – Week 2
The first weekend of the Montana Conservation Corps was a joyous one. For me, and I assume the same for the rest of my crewmates, it was the longest time in memory we had gone without a shower—and after our first week of working hard and getting used to things, we certainly appreciated it. The folks at the Broadwater Athletic Club offered us a really cheap deal for which we are very grateful. One thing I noticed in MCC is how generous people are. We received discounted and free admissions, camp spots, and showers multiple times during the month.
We also got to call our parents, which was nice to check in. If one phone call a week seems extreme to you, know that in our day in age being able to stay unplugged for weeks at a time is a blessing. For me, it gave me time to have clear thoughts and contemplate where I am in my life. It was quite liberating to hear almost no news for a week… which has made me aware how the negativity in the media has gradually impacted my emotions as well.
The next place we were headed was Upsata Lake; all I knew was that it was near Ovando. It is a gorgeous place. The work we were doing was for the Fish and Wildlife Service, on property that was once a guest ranch. The volunteer groundskeeper was the one who brought in our crew. Not only that, he let us camp on the nice, flat lawn, and allowed us to utilize the bathroom and kitchen. A huge luxury compared to the week before! I can honestly say that being able to wake up to such a serene, beautiful lake was one of the best experiences in my life. We were able to visit the captivating Garnet Ghost Town and when youth program coordinator Krystle Gawel-Kulesa visited, we went for an ice cream run to Seeley Lake on a hot day.
Behind the house-like Fish and Wildlife Service office building was a small wetland, an important habitat for local birds. Our first job the first couple of days was to help prep a workshop and house on the land for staining. The rest of the days we were repairing and improving a wooden fence around the wetland to prevent cattle from grazing on and destroying it. Crew #2 was with us for the fence repair, and it was good to revive the hacky-sack tradition from the previous week with them.
Each week, our crew gets a presentation about the area we’ve been working in and also about the duties of the organization we’re working with. The first week in the Townsend Ranger District we had a very well-rounded and fascinating presentation by local Forestry Technician Colin Crook about the process of logging on public lands. At Upsata, we learned about wildlife biology from Randy Gazda, and how much the job is data and paperwork oriented, yet still very gratifying.
By the second week of the month, all of us on our crew had grown fairly comfortable with each other and became better acquainted. It was hard not to when your sphere of communication consisted of only seven other people for such a timespan. I believe my journal entry from June 27, the day we left, says it all: “Seems like one of the longest weeks I’ve experienced. Upsata Lake is a very special place.” Also: “I will miss the beautiful kitchen and bathrooms!”
From the wonderful view of the lake from the porch deck to the beautiful sounds of the birds, our MCC experience at Upsata Lake was not one easily forgotten.
Weeks 3 & 4: Two Weeks in the CMR with MCC (June 27th-July 10th)
The prairie is austerely beautiful.
Also: The heat is scorching in July.
En route to our third project, our crew stopped in Great Falls for a visit to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center (a great place), a dip in a pool (greatly appreciated), and pizza! Most importantly, we got to do laundry! Boy, have I never been more excited to do laundry. Our new setup was at “Turkey Joe” campground, right alongside the Missouri river, down a long dirt road known as the Wilder Trail. The isolation of our location was intimidating at first, but it’s hard not to feel calm in such a magnificent landscape. At night, you could hear the dull roar of the mosquitos above the river. Half-dollar-sized spider holes in the ground helped me overcome my arachnophobia fast—that, and the fact that my tent-mates pulled a fast one on me, putting a grasshopper on my back and telling me it was a giant spider. The place is pretty wild.
Our sponsor for the third week was Dan Harrell, a range technician for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He would assist us in taking down the fence, and answer any questions we had regarding the area. His area of expertise is grazing and browsing, and we learned all about the effects of grazing on a landscape. We could point out a plant and he would tell us how common it is in the landscape, what eats it, and even its Latin scientific name.
The fence began at the campground, near an old homestead. By this time, we had mastered the craft of extracting staples, cutting and rolling barbed wire, and pulling posts. This week was the week of the heatwave. I was drinking up to seven liters of water a day, which at the time I didn’t realize is almost two gallons. I felt great, even though we were working in the heat. Perhaps it’s easy for me to say I felt great a month after the fact, but I was certainly much healthier then than I am now.
One can get lost in the work, I discovered, like a meditation. Rolling the wire into coils, the word that kept coming to mind was “weaving”. We took regular snack and water breaks in the shade. During lunch, I learned how to fall asleep fast and sneak in some extra rest. The work is only as strenuous as you make it for yourself. You’re expected to work your hardest and cooperate with the team, nothing more. If any of us felt too sick or tired, there was no pressure to keep working. After all, we were just volunteers.
On the Fourth of July we celebrated with a barbeque at Makoshika State Park, and even caught a performance of The Taming of the Shrew by Montana Shakespeare in the Park. We went on a night hike and watched fireworks burst over Glendive. In the middle of that night, a thunderstorm hit with high winds, and we had to get all of our things in the back of the trailer. The rest of the night was spent uncomfortably with all seven of us in the rig, but the delicious breakfast we had at a diner the next day made up for it. Plus, it was the only day that I didn’t have oatmeal for breakfast, and boy, does that stand out to me!
As soon as we knew it, we were on our final project, and with only a handful of days left. We worked through the heat, getting up at the crack of dawn to avoid the hottest part of the day. This time, we were north of Jordan, Montana. Our setup was next to an abandoned house, the property owners had sold their land to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Shane Weigand of the Fish and Wildlife Service, our sponsor, had mowed large patches and trails in the grass, to make snakes more visible. Not getting bitten by a rattlesnake and how to dig and use a latrine and the courtesy involved were two things learned the final week of the MCC Youth expedition.
There were a couple close encounters with rattlesnakes, while we were cleaning up an old ranch site. One rattled three feet from me. Shane Weigand was pretty experienced in handling wildlife, and for the most part extracted them from our area without harming them. He too assisted us in our work, and was a pretty interesting guy and fun to work with and be around.
I will always remember the beauty of the CMR Wildlife Refuge, and great opportunity I had volunteering my time to help the land.
In truth, the whole month was a fantastic experience. I could’ve tried to write every day in detail, but there would be no point. Each experience with the program will be different, and the important thing is the tangible improvement one can make to public lands and the environment by volunteering. I strongly encourage participating in the Montana Conservation Corps, whether on an adult crew or in the Youth Expedition. Plus, on the Youth Expedition, not only do you receive 160 hours of volunteer service; (good on any application) you also receive the Presidential Volunteer Service Award, from the Office of the President. There not many things more gratifying then serving your community and environment. While Crew #3’s work this year consisted mostly of fence removal, crew work can be a variety of things, including trail building and repair.
“Good times I’ll surely miss. How has it been a month and where does the time go? O, all which arises must soon pass on.” (July 10th Journal Entry)
These three entries were originally published in the Broadwater Reporter as a personal interest story promoting volunteering with MCC.
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