Hard at work

By: Kristina Luotto

My past few weeks with Conservation Corps have flown by. I’ve been BUSY. We’ve driven 3,000 miles, burned upwards of 1,500 acres, planted 10,000 trees, and seen all types of weather this spring.  My crew, normally based out of Rochester, MN, has spent the last three weeks stationed three hours northwest in Paynesville, MN. Life here is straightforward. There's one grocery store to buy lunch supplies at, one gas station we stop at in the mornings on the way out of town, one our favorite dinner spot (of three options). 

We've been staying in Paynesville to work with The Nature Conservancy to assist with their prescribed burn season. It is a blast working with them! Working with a new group of firefighters has been a great learning experience. New burning operations bring new equipment to learn and new ways of doing things. Small steps outside of my comfort zone, whether it be filling a new role on the fire line or working with a new piece of equipment, are both exciting and challenging. 

Being further north than we are accustomed to, we also got to experience new landscapes. We saw prescribed fire in new fuel types, such as pine forests, which brought with it new sights and smells. All of the overnight travel has been challenging, yet refreshing. There are many more lakes than in Southeastern Minnesota and we all ended up jumping into a lake one night after work. We’ve practiced making food budgets stretch (salad bars are awesome!) and parking the large Corps truck in the tight hotel parking lots. We put in long days together as a crew and are better for it.

Spring has also bounced back and forth. We saw snow in May. Thunderstorms damped our prescribed burning operations some days. We gave our time to some rainy day projects, including some roadside trash pick-up in below freezing temps. There have also been sunny days which left the back of our necks a sunburnt, fiery red. We learned to come prepared for each day with winter coats and sunscreen.

It has been a long, full spring. These days of travel, prescribed fire, tree plantings, and seasonal transition have left me sore and tired, but also happy and accomplished. I'm glad to be developing close relationships with people in both the Conservation Corps and The Nature Conservancy. I’m looking forward to a great summer!

Lost and Found

By: Alaine Dickman

Sunny morning heading upstream on the South Fork of the Crow River

Sunny morning heading upstream on the South Fork of the Crow River

I remember the long hikes, the trails, wildflowers honoring the short life of a Black Labrador, Whoopi, blanketing her grave. We had a swing set, an apple tree far off from the house, a long gravel driveway and farm cats. Shouldn't I remember more? The first four years of my life zigzag and ricochet untamed imagination, dreams and nightmares repeating so often that any toddler would confuse them with reality and be forced to believe those events hysterical and tragic occurring behind closed eyelids had truly been lived, and the actual yet dramatized moments of the early years of my life. 

Kingfishers. Every sighting which is not seldom, I see my father. I see Frank Sinatra. I hear the Rat Pack. 10 years at least have passed since I stood on a bank fishing with my father, humming big band music fishing on the Wisconsin River near Merrill, the town my family moved to the year I turned five. Just before moving to Merrill my father sold his boat. We had a boat? What else is anchored in the depths of my memory?

We meet our water trail early every Monday afternoon after loading the truck, grocery shopping, fueling the truck and gas cans and a restroo,m break. Life jackets, chainsaw pants, steel toe rubber boots and occasionally waders are on the body. Four red flotation devices better known to my crew as "butt squares", two chainsaws, gasoline, bar oil, a toolbox, 5 gallons of water, the lunch cooler, a hand saw, wedges and a mallet, loppers, two canoe paddles, a first aid kit, a dry bag and a dry box all aboard. The last to step onto the boat does so with an extra push and pointed toe. 

The tiller takes us upstream until halted by a snag. Each obstruction is photographed and documented with the crew iPad that lives in the dry box. We call this taking "a point." The two remaining crew members are at the bow, preparing the saw, (we tend to favor our newest saw, Log Lady). Check for gas, check for oil, appropriately set the tension of the chain and fire her up. Cuts are made under water, at the surface or above. With as little disturbance to natural habitat as possible the objective is to clear a safe passage for canoes and small boats heading downstream. 

Focus on the logs, the trees, their limbs and reactions to cuts, avoid pinching the saw. Focus on the current; direction, flow rate, position of the boat and sawyer. Act intentionally, safely, selflessly. Move the butt squares out from under your feet or the feet of your partner. Have a (golden) scrench handy, a wedge handy, a set of eyes handy, a hand handy.

Previously I have mentioned how much discipline this job requires. My point is proven again and again week after week and the room for improvement only tapers as distractions are showing up in a manner unexpected. Last week as we traveled upstream I put my ear plugs in to soften the sound of the motor. At the act of deliberately avoiding it's unpleasant sound, the relief as the earplugs expanded creating a false distance between myself and the source, I found myself wondering how many times I have a chosen intentionally a simpler, more quiet path and neglected the noise that begs and needs my attention from another direction. Consuming thoughts, anxiety inducing; sidetracked. How do others prioritize their thoughts and presence of mind each work week? How many others are squinting to see childhood memories, are caught off guard pondering decisions a younger version of themselves made and how many of my peers can set that all aside because they've got a job to do?

I anticipated when applying to serve with the Conservation Corps that I would adore my experiences, I would find fulfillment and I would in some fashion journal our adventures week to week. Fulfillment has perfect attendance, I jot notes and daily events each night, preserving freshness and accuracy. Adoration is absolutely present because just the hint of nostalgia has a heartwarming effect. I just did not anticipate a rugged hike down memory lane to put up such a fight for my attention, for the present to lack as much mercy as the past. 

Every week and every day that I put on a life jacket and sit in our boat and deliver my ears to the birds and admire the Kingfisher's dapper attire, smell the river and witness Spring lunge upwards then surrender to Summer, I sense the shadow of a memory I can't quite catch. I must have sat in that boat. But on what river and at what age? How many worms did I fumble in my tiny palms and tear apart, if I even volunteered to touch them? Was I afraid of the fish, their big eyes, gaping mouths and strange gills? Which of my siblings were there? I can't pull a clear picture from my memory bank with complete certainty my imagination or a sibling's story hasn't bled into my own reality and if I think for too long my patience wanes like the patience of icebergs and I make no progress towards that portion of my past. I often settle for flashes of a small boat on a trailer, a gravel road through the woods to a river or a lake or some body of water, the smell of red, puffy life jackets and the gentle whip of a cast. Familiarity is aggressively scribbled outside the lines and just out of reach. But it's okay: Every lunch break is another chance to briefly sneak up on the past. My practice is that focus lies with the work but during these breaks I can welcome distractions that fly by as often as Frank Sinatra and when the timing is right I'll fly away with him.

Snapshots of new friends

By: Erika Birnbaum


Bumble Bee: While cleaning up some turtle scrapes the Duluth crew came across a cold little bumble bee that took a liking to the crew right away. When putting him back where he was found, he was reluctant to let go of his new friends. 


Woodchuck: First day fire staffing the Duluth crew met this shy but curious woodchuck. Popping his head out of his den for a few minutes while Duluth made their introductions. Later on the woodchuck joined a crew member for their lunch. 



Blue Heron: A blue heron called the quiet bay near Duluth’s lodgings home. He made appearances throughout the week, swooping inches from the water, showing off to his new neighbors.

Beaver: Bear Head Lake was a Beaver Resort. One canoe outing keeping track of all them was too much. They had fun slapping their tails as the canoes came too close, just trying to say hello. While out clearing trail the crew came upon a massive beaver damn, with his mansion sitting out farther in his little kingdom. 


Turtle Scrapes: While no turtles came out to check out their improved nesting sites, Duluth crew knew their hard work would pay off. Through giving wood turtles a safe nesting site, the crew hoped for a bright future for the eggs.





Muskrat: S’mores night at Bear Head lake was interrupted by a stealthy little muskrat creeping around the house.





Vole: While checking out a massive beaver dam one of the Duluth crew caught a little vole. This critter was not interested in making any friends. After the photo shoot he was released and he scampered away, glad to be rid of us.