Learning to lead

By: Lauren Waldrip

Things are moving pretty quickly as Youth Outdoors wraps up their spring term. The last-day banquet for youth crews takes place in 5 days, and before then we will have completed our end of term service project, capstone report, and crew evaluations. Following our youth term, the Bridges crew will meet our two new crew members as we begin training for things to come this summer, and before you know it we’ll be in Superior National Forest for our three-week-long spike trip. Yet, with things moving so fast, I have to prepare to say goodbye to my youth crew members, and for that I could really use a time-out.

It’s funny looking back on my time with my youth crew. I remember feeling so anxious when they started. I had not worked in such a clear leadership role before, and without a co-leader to take the spot light off of me I thought my youth crew would be able to smell my fear. Our field specialist, Chris, graciously tagged along the first few times while I acclimated to the role of youth crew leader. A note on Chris: he is a walking Ice-breaker, no games needed. His quirky stories and off-the-wall questions made us all break into laughter, which really set the tone for our time together.

Despite my lingering nervousness, I learned to lead my youth crew. There were definitely a few instances where I felt unprepared, but those times became valuable lessons. For example, our first full-length field day we went to Lebanon Hills Regional Park to haul and pile brush for burning in the fall. This is the site where my adult crew had worked since we began in the field so I felt fairly confident. One catch: I’ve never made a brush-pile nor seen it being done. I’ve taken an honest approach with my crew members, and I told them what the situation was. On our hike in we had passed a few brush-piles from last fall and received some instruction from other crew leaders on how to pile brush, but being a visual learner, I knew I had to see it being done if I was going to lead my crew in this task. We tried winging it for nearly 30 minutes, and then I proposed a field trip around the other crews to see how it’s done. After leading a goofy parade, we returned to our area and set to work building the most legit brush-pile you’ve ever seen.

Not really, but we all felt pretty great about it.

When I look back on that day, I see how I could have been better prepared. If I had felt concerned about my lack of knowledge, I should have resolved that by asking more questions and looking for information before setting out to lead. However, I am also really pleased with our day. Only in retrospect can I appreciate that being straight-forward with my crew about my lack of expertise demonstrated that it’s okay to not have the answers, and that by including my youth in my “journey for the answers” (literally: walking around watching other people work) I encouraged them to take the initiative to seek out answers and ask for help. A little floundering led me to the discovery that I can be a capable leader, and I began to grow the confidence that I needed to fill that role.

I felt a lot of satisfaction at the end of that day. I was happy to have had the opportunity to teach my crew about hand tools and field safety while producing two hefty brush-piles. I was also happy to be able to teach them why the small task we were doing was important and how it contributes to the larger goal of restoring a habitat. Most of all, I was happy to spend the afternoon getting to know my youth crew members, and listening to them laugh and joke with each other.

And the rest of the term flew by...

A big thank you and good-bye to my crew members, Angel, Amanda, Abdi, Xang, Shaunna and Vasia.

I’m so glad to have been able to lead such a fun, friendly, smart group of young adults. You all have challenged and supported me, and I can only hope that I have done the same for each of you. I sincerely wish you all the best in whatever future you decide to pursue.

A part of history

By: Erika Birnbaum

Up on the northern point of Minnesota is the Grand Portage Reservation. Within the reservation is a National Historic Monument, a reconstruction of the fur trading fort that once sat there in the late 1700s. The area gets its name from the long trek traders used to have to do to get their goods from Fort Charlotte to Lake Superior. This 8.5 mile Portage was done with 90lb packs to avoid the many rapids and waterfalls along Partridge River. The reconstruction consists of the wood fence made with tall logs sharpened to points. Inside the fence are two main buildings, one has the grand hall, and some small gardens and chicken coop. 

Just outside of the fence is a canoe warehouse. This is the building the Duluth CCM crew was tasked with re-shingling. The canoe warehouse held the historic recreations of what Native Americans used, birch bark canoes. One spanned close to the whole length of the 56' long building. Every year or so a new smaller birch bark canoe is added to their collection. Many tools from the active time period of the trading post are stored in the building. On the shore-side of the building are double wood doors leading to a boat ramp. The building is set up off the ground by big log posts every 10 feet or so.  

The Duluth crew set up on scaffolding, ropes and harnesses so four of the five team members could be up on the roof. The fifth provided ground support for those working on the roof. After all safety precautions were met the crew got down to business. This involved removing the old cedar shingles put on in 1993 and nailing down the new ones. While a repetitive process, it took concentration and as they moved along scaffolding and harnesses needed to be moved as well. The cedar shingles vary in sizes so care had to be taken to make the assorted sizes fit together in each course and completely cover the gaps in the course below.  Each shingle was about 15-16" long and ranged from 12-13" wide. The shingles were layered on top of one another to make the most impervious roof possible. Each course was four and a half inches above the other. The bottom course was doubled with an inch of overhang to give 100% protection. At the ridge of the roof the top course was shortened to fit under a metal ridge cap. Shingles all around 5-6" in width were laid horizontally on either side to cap the roof. All said and done the crew was able to do approximately 90 square feet a day of tearing off and re-shingling.  Seeing the finished project Monday morning, the Duluth crew was pretty proud of their accomplishment and new skills.

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.